nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 28, 2006
Lestat, the new musical by Elton John, Bernie Taupin, and Linda Woolverton, turns out to be the happiest surprise of the spring. It's quite entertaining; I liked it a lot—much more, let me add, than I expected to. (And expectations do matter in the theatre.)
The show is based on the "Vampire Chronicles" of Anne Rice, and tells the story of a young Frenchman named Lestat who is turned into a vampire against his will and then spends the next hundred years or so wandering the world in his undead state, trying to reconcile the nature of his existence with his ingrained belief in its inherent evil. That makes the story sound difficult and polemical, which it emphatically is not, so let me try again: Lestat wants to be loved for himself, to have a partner and raise a family and pretty much be left alone. But he can only survive by killing people and drinking their blood, so despite his aspirations and his decency, he's forced to live as an outcast and to wonder why the God that he still believes in has made his life so miserable.
What makes Lestat so watchable is that this is strong, compelling material, and in librettist Woolverton's hands it is told with clarity and speed: it's involving, engaging story-telling that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next.
What makes Lestat unusual—downright daring, even—is that the relationships it delineates are almost exclusively same-sex. Nobody in the show is conventionally gay (with the possible exception of Lestat's childhood bosom friend Nicolas; Lestat's fateful nighttime encounter with the vampire who bites, kills, and transforms him comes directly after an aborted sexual invitation from Nicolas, one that Lestat seems to fear as well as desire). But the vampire Lestat's preference certainly seems homosexual, except that vampires don't, as far as we can tell, actually have sex. Lestat's life companion of choice is a man named Louis (and together the two men raise a child, a ten-year-old girl named Claudia). And there is palpable sexual tension between Lestat and his antagonist, the vampire Armand, who was himself the "muse" of the great ancient founder of the vampire "sect," Marius.
Mind you, this all just plays out without comment, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which is a thing to love about this show). Meanwhile, the writers provide very accessible subtext throughout that reinforces the idea that a person's "lifestyle" (or orientation; fill in the word that suits you) is always valid and never "evil," despite what others may convince you or themselves; that we should all live proudly and openly as whatever we are, be that mortal or vampire or... well, I think you get the idea.
Now let me backtrack one final time and state very clearly that, all of the foregoing notwithstanding, Lestat is principally a suspenseful theatrical adventure on the order of Phantom of the Opera or Nicholas Nickleby—not as artful as either of those, perhaps, but entirely viable and engaging on its own terms. The story takes us from 18th century France to ante-bellum New Orleans to a variety of other locations all over this world and, on a few occasions, a netherworld whose precise identity is never defined. Romance, social upheaval, upper-class soirees, family relationships, and the theatre itself all share stagetime here. The work's structure frequently reminded me of Les Miserables, only turned inside-out, with the hero traveling for decades through darkness, dogged by a black-garbed nemesis and emotionally tied to a mother figure and a daughter figure. (I wondered if the collaborators of Lestat were as conscious of the parallels as I was; based on striking similarities—bordering on playful parody—in a few of the scenes, I'm betting that they were.)
The score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Bernie Taupin, is serviceably dramatic if not overly theatrical or literate; the book is better, propelling the show forward energetically and often wittily. The design is dazzling: audiences get their money's worth and more from Derek McLane's endlessly evolving and morphing sets, Kenneth Posner's gorgeous atmospheric lighting, Susan Hilferty's stylish period costumes, Angelina Avallone's grand makeup creations, and Tom Watson's wigs and hair designs. (The program credits Dave McKean with "visual concept design.") Fluid projections in the background help ensure that the show never stops moving; a few neat special effects involving fire and sunlight provide fun (if cheap) theatrics. McLane's work is deliciously clever in places, especially in the evolution of the bedroom belonging to Claudia, the little vampire daughter "adopted" by Lestat and Louis, who must remain a ten-year-old forever.
Robert Jess Roth (director) and Matt West (musical staging) keep the production flowing briskly and excitingly. Their cast is first-rate, with particularly noteworthy performances by Jim Stanek as Louis, Roderick Hill as Nicolas, and Carolee Carmello as Gabrielle, Lestat's mother. Allison Fischer, the young lady who plays Claudia, stops the show twice, first delivering a paean to childish selfishness called "I Want More" and then topping herself with the more thoughtful and poignant "I'll Never Have That Chance." In this latter number, she muses on the fact that immortality may not be preferable to the more natural progress of aging; it's the finest song in the score, and Fischer helps to make it the emotional highpoint of the evening.
Delivering a truly admirable star turn in the title role is Hugh Panaro. Lestat is a marathon role along the lines of Rose or Tevye (again, I'm not commenting on the quality, just the size); he is on stage for all but about ten minutes of the show, and participates in at least a dozen of the show's musical numbers. Panaro marshals his energy for the second act, where he brings the piece to its climax in "Sail Me Away," which is Lestat's answer to "Bring Him Home"; there follows a thrilling duel with Armand and a conclusion that at least I didn't see coming.
Lestat, perhaps not great art, is more than satisfactory theatre, and if you're prepared to suspend disbelief and melt into a fantastical world where vampires live elegant, restrained lives but do not turn themselves into bats, then this may be the perfect entertainment of an evening. I left Lestat convinced, more than anything else, that John, Taupin, and Woolverton really wanted to tell us this story, and that they had done so with style and heart. That doesn't always happen when you see a big-budget musical; it's something to savor.