Blast from the Past: Lestat

From 2007 -Jan-07.  I had seen two shows in San Francisco.  These were my thoughts — I have not edited my bad spelling — I had had a long drive to the city, and then two shows — I was tired.

For my flex day, I had a long day of theatrical performances. First I saw Corteo, the current Cirque Do Soleil show in San Francisco. This is the fourth piece of theirs I have seen live (the others being Quidam, Dralion, and Mystere). I can say that this is my second favorite. Like Quidam, Corteo has a strong unifying story — that of a man dreaming of his own funeral. The music was fun, and the band spent much of the show interacting with the cast. They were on-stage, in the spotlight towers, dancing and singing. It was a joy. Unlike the other Cirque shows I have seen this was presented in the round, and for the most part this worked well. The show seemed to loose some steam in the second act when doing a Comedia rendition of Romeo and Juliet as a clown piece. It really didn’t work, at least from my vantage point. Otherwise the show was a great success.
Design elements in the show were especially challenging as the show was presented in the round. In an attempt to keep lighting glare from the audiences eye, and to deal with the exceedingly small lighting rig available, the show was lit by mostly top light. Front light was achieved via four spotlights that surrounded the stage. Additionally on the central corridor of the set, which included vomitoria to allow performers and scenery to enter, had four sets of exceedingly bright low angle PAR washes. This allowed acts center stage to be illuminated without follow spots. There were additional up light washes to illuminate the aerial acts.
The show had a complex motorized rigging system that included three arched motorized tracks that could move a performer or scenery across the central corridor. They also allowed the height of the flown objects to be raised or lowered as desired. This was used to strong effect in creating the illusion of an actor “walking” on the bottom of a tight wire. His movement appeared to be smooth and perfectly straight across the bottom, even though it was completely controlled by the rigging system and not by the performer.
The main scenery was several sets of scrims allowing the shape of the central corridor to change while still allowing the audience to see the action. There were two tableau curtains and to olio style drops. The central disc of the show was devided into 4 concetric circles each with the ability to roated independently of the others. A central trap door at the center was used to great effect by the clowns in a scene.
The other show I saw was Lestat, in a pre-opeing/pre-Broadway engagement at the Curran theatre. The shows troubling structural elements in the script and lyrics pointed to a show that, in its present state, will not be well received by the critics and probably the New York theatre going public.
Before I discuss flaws, and possible solutions, I want to mention some of the truly strong points about the show (even though for the good of the whole show, several of them should, in my opinion, be cut). Let me start by mentioning a very hard working cast that seems to handle what they were given with style, grace and great enthusiasm. Hugh Panaro is more than up to the role (blonde wig and all), and by the second act manages to make us feel some sympathy for the title character (the fact that he can’t do this sooner is largely a book/structure problem, but more on that later). Jim Stanek was woefully underused as Louis, and had a lovely voice and an engaging manner. Drew Sarich, filling in for the dismissed Jack Noseworthy, as Armand played the almost one dimensional villain with relish, and brought us to understand the pain that Lestat causes him. I have saved the two mind blowing stand outs for last — Carolee Carmello blows the audience away in the role of Gabrielle, her voice, acting, and sheer stage power could almost make one overlook the shows problems as long as she is on stage (and my notes below about what could be done to help the show practically necessitate her character being cut — this is not in any way a reflection on her performance but rather a need to bring a focus to the meandering story). I know Ms. Carmello’s work and expected her to be amazing, and she managed to exceed my expectations. Allison Fischer as the eternally 10 years old Claudia, the child vampire, brought much needed humor, warmth, and horror to the proceedings. Her two songs showed us both extreme joy and extreme pain, and she is to be commended. Also on the plus side are some lovely melodies by Elton John, and (at least in the second act) some very adequate lyrics by Bernie Taupin — unfortunately, many of the lyrics (*especially in the first act*) fail to live up to some of his great songs with Elton John in the past like Candle in the Wind and Yellow Brick Road. Also, as always, Kenneth Posner’s lighting was beautiful, illuminating, and helped progress the story.
I need to mention what didn’t work. Derek McLane’s set seemed to be searching for a style — it often had this “ripped water color paper” look, but then it got big and vaguely realistic and then it got……. Well inconsistent. Howard Werner’s projections were nice but exceedingly distracting, and by the mid point of act I had really outstayed their welcome. There seemed to be nothing new, just the same old images over and over again. The projections were used to show a montage of lives of the vampire’s victims as their lives were drained way. As these victims exist only to die, and their stories are unimportant to the one we are viewing. Additional, this convention is too flashy and obscure to tell someone who hasn’t read the books what is happening. (In disclosure I have read most of the books, my theatre mates had not — I understood, but thought it was odd, they were just confused). In the first act most of the lyrics are very predictable (“Far from Dead”, “Nothing”, “Here, In Paris”, and “Origin of the Species” were especially guilty — although you could argue that the bad lyrics of “Origin” were intentional). This improves in the second act (and in fact unlike almost every other show I’ve seen, the second act of Lestat is far stronger than the first)
Linda Woolverton’s book tries to encompass the entire Vampire chronicles into a single show, leaving the audience confused and lacking sympathy for many characters — we don’t get to know them well enough. The plot is conceived as Lestat writes his memoirs on a lap top. Flash back structures are rarely successful in theatre. Lestat has broken his life in to 8 movements as follows:
1: His mortal life (His dad hates him, his mother dotes)
2: The dark gift (becoming a vampire, making his mother into a vampire0
3: Theatre of Vampires: (A history lesson so that the finale will make sense, and where he unsuccessfully tries to make his best friend a vampire)
4: Devil’s Road, where Lestat seeks answers to his origin and his mother leaves him for her own path.
5. The New World (where he finds a very old vampire, and moves to New Orleans, makes Louis )
6. Eden (where he makes Claudia a vampire so that Louis, Lestat and Claudia can live as a family — Cluaida revolts and tries to Kill Lestat)
7. Reunion (Lestat returns to Paris, and discovers Louis and Claudia working at the theater, and Armand kills Claudia for her attempt of Lestats life)
8. Revelation (Marius reveals the most ancient vampires to Lestat and Lestat finds a moral)

The problem with this long story is it goes nowhere, and takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to do so. I would recommend restructuring the story as follows (and yes I know it eliminated Carolee Carmello’s role, and that is a shame because she is truly fabulous). It seems like the team is going for the moral of “The family you make is stronger than the family you’re given,” and with that interpretation of the finale, I’m going to recommend a restructuring — certain areas will have to be expanded, new lyrics will have to be written to sum up exposition faster, and a few marvelous actor’s would have their roles written out.
We don’t need his mortal life — he hates his father, so what. The play should start with him being made a vampire, with some retooling of this scene and it’s songs we can get what we need to know to understand. Fast forward to the Lestat discovering Armand’s vampires living in the sewers. (Yes this means skipping Gabriele, Lestat’s mother, entirely). Have Lestat free them, thus incurring Armand’s wrath. (This sequence might even be slightly expandable). If Armand curses/chastises/challenges Lestat to live one mortal life time before he judges others, we could also skip the first appearance of Marius, and eliminate the “Origin of the Species” sequence — possibly in favor of a funny, frivolous “Theatre of Vampires” sequences, much like what appears in the second act. The above could cover the plot of the current first act in about 20 minutes, which would allow the audience to get to the heart-wrenching morsal of the story which currently is the first half of act II. Once Lestat is challenged to live a mortal life, he can head to New Orlenes. This sequence contains some of the best songs of the play (“Welcome to the New World”, “Embrace It”, “I want More”, “I’ll Never Have That Chance”), and the scenes that have the most heart. (this section is essentially the film of Interview with a Vampire) This sequence should be expanded (possibly give “The Crimison Kiss”, currently Gabrielle’s show stopper, to Luis, to whom it also applies, with only minor lyric changes). Several new numbers should be written for this sequence — especially since “I want More” and “I’ll never have that chance”, are both Claudia numbers and are back to back. Once they set fire to Lestat, it might be nice to see Louis and Claudia join the theatre of vampires, or see their voyage across the sea to Paris. Lestat’s voyage, performed in “Sail Me Away”, is an effective haunting number, but seems to lack any parallels anywhere else in the current production. More should be made of the reunion with Lestat, Armand, Louis, and Claudia before Armand puts Claudia to death. (And good grief, if there ever was a missed song cue, Claudia being bound to a chair waiting for the dawn which will kill her is one! It should be an epically operatic moment of unbound emotions, and instead it is coved by a four second light cue and another video projection. This number should probably a trio for her, the weakened Lestat and the trapped Louis). A shorter roof top confrontation between Lestat and Armand should follow with Louis (rather than Marius) saving Lestat, A modified version of Finale featuring Lestat, Louis and Armand should follow.
As it currently stands only Lestat has any concrete journey, the above outline would at least give Louis a journey, and a more beefed up role. Also, depending on her impending doom song, Claudia could also have a nice journey, leaving only our villain Armand without a journey. This concept also reduces the principal characters from 7 to 4, which would hopefully help with the lack of focus in the show.
The truth is, there is a show and a good one underneath the travesty that was on stage. It isn’t great, but it could be very good. Even as it currently stands it needs very little in the way of special effects (it has a ton, but doesn’t really need them). This is a story about Vampires, and it has no heart. The Louis/Claudia/Lestat family gives it what little heart it currently has, and could (if built upon) give the show all the heart it needs and then some. (And dump the special effects, let the audience focus on the story — on a family — which is something we can all relate to). Again I want to reiterate that my recommendation of cutting Gabrielle, Nicolas, and Marius has nothing to do with Carolee Carmello, Roderick Hill or Michael Genet’s performances which were first rate, and has everything to do with reigning in an overly ambitious, complicated and meandering story.

Again, as usual, everything is my opinion and I’m sure many people will disagree with me.

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