Defanged

Like Anne Rice's novels, Lestat employs metaphysical chest-beating at the expense of storytelling

Besides Madonna and John Travolta, there are few people in popular culture who know more about the power of reinvention than Anne Rice. Fans were understandably shocked when the mass-market fiction world's reigning queen of the damned made the announcement recently that she'll be supplanting a longtime literary interest in the undead with a series of novels about eternal life -- specifically the life of Jesus Christ. The author's instinct for transformation is also evident in her earlier work. Rice's best-selling series of "Vampire Chronicles" books might seem a little long in the tooth today, with its homoerotic overtones and Prada-wearing devils. Yet it arguably altered the way in which contemporary audiences think about the nature of evil. For instance, you won't catch any of Rice's fashion-conscious befanged ones hissing "I vant to suuuck your blood" before they go in for the kill. Neither do her creatures of the night fear crosses, garlic, or stakes. Instead, their greatest fear is themselves.

That lyricist Bernie Taupin should dub Lestat, a new musical based on "The Vampire Chronicles," a "non-vampire, vampire musical" suggests a fidelity to the spirit of Rice's reinvention of the genre. The original narrative thread of the "Chronicles" may feel like it's been shoved through a meat grinder: The musical cobbles together characters and plotlines from several of the novels to tell the story of the vampire Lestat's 300-year-long quest to come to terms with his existence in the space of just three hours. Nevertheless, Rice's essential theme -- that a group of damned souls aren't, at heart, all that different from you or me -- is, for better and for worse, strongly reflected in this new Broadway-bound adaptation for the stage.

Lestat falls in line with Rice by turning clichés to do with the depiction of vampires in popular culture upside down. Unlike gory movies based on the "Chronicles," such as Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Queen of the Damned(2002), Lestat is bodily fluid-free. None of the performers has pointy teeth (singing through fangs has never been easy, mind you). Neither do any of them fly, though one character -- the particularly powerful vampire Marius -- does manage a slight swoop just before intermission.

Nice Outfits: Carolee Carmello (Gabrielle) 
and Hugh Panaro (Lestat) sing "The 
Crimson Kiss."
Paul Kolnik
Nice Outfits: Carolee Carmello (Gabrielle) and Hugh Panaro (Lestat) sing "The Crimson Kiss."

Details

Music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Through Jan. 29

Tickets are $30-85

551-2000

www.lestat .com

Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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Similarly, the musical makes great fun of various myths. In one of several energetic play-within-a-play scenes, for instance, actors employed in the all-vampire performance group the Theatre of the Vampires act out a melodramatic story straight out of the Hammer Horror film archives, in which a hooded fiend stalks an innocent maiden only to be stopped in his tracks by a handsome, stake-wielding Van Helsing type. And in one of the most visually beautiful moments, Lestat and the newly minted vampire Gabrielle (who was Lestat's mother before her son transformed her, as in Rice's original, into one of the damned) encounter the vampire Armand in a church. Not only does Armand wear a monk's habit when he first appears, but the group also meets right underneath one of the biggest crucifixes you're ever likely to see outside of the Vatican. Illuminated by lighting designer Kenneth Posner's eerie shafts of white light and surrounded by crumbling Gothic arches (the work of set designer Derek McLane), the cross is both imposing and awe-inspiring. Yet the trio of bloodthirsty Antichrists doesn't seem in the least bit bothered by the hanging Messiah.

As a result of such efforts, the predators in Lestat appear very down-to-earth. In keeping with Rice's "evil is a point of view" credo, the production raises vampires from desensitized supernatural killers to heightened human beings. Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello) perfectly captures this idea in the musical when she says, "We are like the wolf who kills the hare in order to live. The wolf is not evil. It's in his nature to kill."

Unfortunately, the musical's considerable efforts to humanize the inhuman end up biting it in the neck. Rice may have altered the way we think about good and evil with her flamboyant, voluptuous prose, but here the lack of transformation, in the sense of strong, dramatic contrast between the living and the dead -- as well as among the dead themselves -- makes for lifeless theater. In the novels, the character of Lestat is as alluring as he is repellent: Others risk obliteration to be with him or destroy him. The musical, however, reduces the protagonist (as portrayed by Hugh Panaro, a suitably handsome devil in a flowing blond wig) to a pontificating neurotic and those around him to ciphers. It all feels rather flat. Even visual concept designer Dave McKean's heroic attempt to convey the tumultuous journey from a human to a vampire state through a multitextured high-speed film collage fails to generate a sense of real drama.

Elton John's music is similarly lacking in inspiration. Whatever you may think about the crocodile rocker, melodies he composed for two previous Broadway efforts, Aida and The Lion King, certainly demonstrate his ear for a good show tune. But beyond the explosive number "I Want More," in which Claudia (Allison Fischer), the vampire world's answer to Veruca Salt, rages with wild abandon against Lestat for treating her like a china doll, John's songs are about as piercing as a vampire with no eyeteeth.

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