Hugh Panaro and Allison Fischer in Lestat(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Hugh Panaro and Allison Fischer in Lestat
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
It's the best damned vampire musical Broadway has seen in years. Granted, that's not saying much for Lestat, considering that Broadway's most recent vampire musicals -- Dance of the Vampires (2002) and Dracula: The Musical (2004) -- were atrocities. But the reports of Lestat's death from West Coast critics and New York preview audiences have been greatly exaggerated. The new musical at the Palace is certainly not a great show, but it's occasionally a good one. Based on the vampire chronicles of Anne Rice, it has music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin, and a book by Linda Woolverton.

There are a few intriguing ideas and ingredients, two wonderful lead performances, and plenty of good supporting turns in Lestat. When we first meet the title character (played by Hugh Panaro) in the early 19th century, he has just slaughtered some pesky wolves and enjoyed doing so more than he'd expected. (Foreshadowing!) He returns home to what many sons have experienced: a father who criticizes, a mother who encourages. Mom is played by Carolee Carmello, who seems as stiff as her starched costume, but there's a reason for this: Her character's ill. "You must live the life I never could," she tells Lestat -- so he's off to visit ol' pal Nicholas, who's working at a theater in Paris.

Lestat goes home with Nicolas, who's sexually interested in him. Though Lestat does a bit of flirting, he soon says he needs "some air." During his walk, he's attacked by head vampire Magnus. (See? He should have opted for gay sex!) Now Lestat's a vampire, too. That's predictable, but the story improves when he returns home and his mother says "Make me as you are," feeling that the undead existence of a vampire must be better than actual death. This leads to a different kind of Oedipus complex as Lestat becomes a mother-sucker. Savvy audiences would expect this, because a performer of Carmello's stature surely wouldn't agree to die and disappear in Act I. But surprise: She's barely present at all in Act II. In fact, she has more right to sing "What Happened to My Part?" than Sara Ramirez did.

Mom sees a passer-by, screams with hunger, and pounces on the live bait. Perhaps a healthy laugh here and there was the intention of director Robert Jess Roth and the rest of the creative team -- with or without the input of Elton John, who reportedly doesn't take a hands-on interest in the show he's writing. Whatever the case, humor does crop up in the show; but many theatergoers will laugh in a superior way, assuming the staff was too stupid to notice that certain moments are unintentionally funny.

Lestat spends his time biting necks and making converts. When Nicholas learns what's up, he decides that he wants to be a vampire, too; but while Lestat's mom loves her new form of existence, Nicolas doesn't. (Apparently, the vampire's bite affects everyone differently.) Lestat wants Marius to return and cure Nicolas, but the Vampire of Vampires doesn't, so Lestat euthanizes his old friend. And, wouldn't you know it, that's just when Marius shows up! (Well, vampires do sleep late.)

The story takes a few odd turns. Some of the vampires start a theater troupe (no kidding). In a welcoming speech, the playgoers are told that if they are too unnerved by the show within the show, they are free to leave. Is this warning also meant for those in the Palace? Perhaps, for the Vampire Theatre Company presents what can be best described as a choreopoem with dancers in masks cavorting between brightly colored sheets that span the stage horizontally. (Very artsy!) Woolverton's writing is sometimes pedestrian. For example, when Lestat and mom enter a church, he says, "I wonder if we'll be struck down?" But sometimes her work is arresting. When Mom says that she wants to see the world and Lestat discourages her, her rebuttal is that, as a mother, she always accepted the fact that he'd leave her -- so why, she wonders, can't he give her the same consideration?

Lestat comes to the New World, ostensibly to open an American franchise of vampires, and meets Louis. Anyone given these pages to read would swear he had in hand a scene in which a gay man attempts to seduce a straight one. These two become domestic partners and parents of a girl named Claudia, but they have difficulty dealing with the eternal prepubescent. Poor Lestat! When he came across Claudia, she was a dying consumptive, so he figured he'd "save" her by making her a vampire. This short-term solution becomes a long-term problem.

Is it too late for Elton John and Bernie Taupin to join the BMI-Lehman Engel workshop? They didn't know that, for the moments when the action of their musical shifts to Paris or New Orleans, they needn't have written songs that list the charms of those cities. Taupin may have eclipsed the Bingo folks as the creator of this season's most seriously misrhymed and misaccented lyrics. John's music comes off better, but what's passable in the theater won't get many spins on a CD player. Still, a song in which Lestat proclaims "The thirst! I feel it coming on!" gets whoops from the audience. (Maybe it could be used in a Pepsi commercial?)

If Lestat is a flop, no one has told Panaro and Carmello. They throw themselves -- okay, sink their teeth -- into their roles. When each takes center stage and sings, it's galvanizing. Tony nominations for both, please, and maybe one for Allison Fischer as well. Her Claudia is so good, we don't mind that her character's language and demeanor seem far too modern for 1828. Similarly, the anachronism of her country song is ameliorated by her doing it so well.

Set designer Derek McLane saves the splendor for the second act. Susan Hilferty's costumes are rich and evocative. Kenneth Posner provides a terrific lighting effect where sunlight slowly but surely sneaks across the stage -- and you know what the sun does to vampires. Or do you? Woolverton and Rice give us new information about the life and times of these creatures. Pshaw on crosses and stakes in hearts, and garlic isn't even mentioned.

By the way, after 30 years in the show's action have passed, we return to the Vampire Theatre Company and see that it's still going strong. Lestat won't do as well, but if we must have a vampire musical, this one might as well be it.