The Gaslight Theatre has just raised the curtain on its annual salute to Halloween—this year with the ghoulish melodrama The Vampire, or He Loved in Vein!
The appearance of a Halloween treat so early in the year is likely to elicit one of two reactions. For some there's delight, because the Gaslight is such a consistent source of silly, anarchic fun, and because scary stories are ripe with opportunities for comedy. Others—of a more serious bent—may balk at the early date (opening in August, no less!) or consider themselves too sophisticated for the Gaslight's simple charms.
I will divide my review accordingly, so you may read just the portion best suited to your taste.
For the melodrama-phile, The Vampire is a predictably hilarious, gothic romp.
Drawing on the classic novel by Bram Stoker (but drained of any actual blood), the tale begins in Transylvania, where the citizens live in terror of the creatures of the night. Mr. Renfield (Joe Cooper) has traveled to the castle of Count Dracula (David Fanning) to finalize the purchase of a new home for the Count in London.
Once in London, Dracula preys upon the beautiful Miss Lucy (Janée Page), before turning his sights toward Mina Seward (Sarah Vanek-Stellmon). He is defied and eventually defeated by Mina's father, Dr. Seward (Sean MacArthur); her fiancé, Lord Alfred Chitworth (Mike Yarema); and the redoubtable vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (David Orley).
With the help of music director and pianist extraordinaire Linda Ackerman, the band sprinkles a generous serving of anachronistic pop songs into this dark Victorian tale, ranging from "Tea for Two" and "Blue Moon" to "I'm Too Sexy." The Crystals' hit song from 1963 is re-imagined as "Then He Bit Me," and a particular, long-dead dance craze (I won't spoil the surprise by naming it) is here resurrected as "The Nosferatu."
Under the lead of director and author Peter Van Slyke, the cast is in fine form—hamming it up, chewing the scenery and generally making fools of themselves in the best possible ways.
Fanning easily commands the stage as the ne'er-do-well vampire. Yarema is charmingly helpless as Lord Chitworth, and his amorous courtship ritual with Vanek-Stellmon's Miss Mina is a laugh every time it's repeated. Yarema, Vanek-Stellmon, Thompson and MacArthur also have particularly fine singing voices.
Orley is an idiosyncratic choice for Dr. Van Helsing. He strikes a figure more cloistered college professor than vampire hunter. But with tiny spectacles framing his eyes and a W-shaped mustache resting on his lip, he's able to mine comic gold from the slightest twitch and gesture.
And Cooper, as the crazed Renfield, once again steals the show, apparently on a mission to crack up as many of his fellow cast members as possible.
All of these hijinks are framed beautifully by Tom Benson's gothic sets. They're full of batty details (literally) and topped off with wonderfully hokey theatrical special effects, from remote-controlled rats to fire-eyed wolves.
All in all, it's another ghoulishly fun show at the Gaslight.
And now a word for the thinkers, the analyzers and the critically inclined.
Analyzing a Gaslight show may seem, to some, like critiquing cotton candy. It is, after all, intentionally silly, sweet and lacking in substance. But the amazing thing is that, for all that, Gaslight plays generally exhibit a high level of craftsmanship in writing, design and production.
The Vampire does not quite rise to that high standard. Yes, I was telling the truth when I said it's ghoulishly fun—a full house of guffawing audience members doesn't lie—but it also lacks the spark that's found in the theater's best work. I attribute that problem to three things.
First, the script is missing an essential element of melodrama: the hero. Dracula is a fiendishly hiss-worthy villain, but there's no hero to cheer for. All of the virtuous characters are passive. Lord Chitworth seems ready to fill the role in a final showdown with Dracula, but he reverts back almost immediately to hapless sidekickery.
Secondly, the material doesn't allow designer Tom Benson to show off his stuff. Normally he creates color-splashed backdrops that evoke a broad variety of locales. This time, he's confined to a gothic palette of blues and grays, and each new setting blends indistinctly into the one preceding it.
Plus, Benson has fewer opportunities for his special stage magic. This play's fluttering bats and vanishing vampires are nice, but they just don't provide the same thrill as Benson's usual galloping horses and flying carpets.
Lastly, few of the musical numbers hit their mark. The audience members laugh initially as they recognize the familiar pop tune that inspired each one, but after that initial delight the laughs drop off. And some tunes, like "Kiss of Fire," simply aren't familiar enough to resonate broadly with the audience. Others, Dracula's "I'm Too Scary" included, don't allow the performers to shine vocally.
Even the olio—the free-wheeling, post-show musical revue, this time themed as Wolfman Jack's Howl-O-Ween Special—lands very few punches. The best number on the night I attended was Tom Jones' "Help Yourself," sung by David Fanning as Frankenstein's monster. ("Love is like candy on a shelf / You want to taste and help yourself.")
In the end, however, it almost doesn't matter that The Vampire is not the Gaslight's best work. It still provides high-volume laughs to audiences every night, which should give fans something to celebrate and critics something to ponder.