TRIBUNE-REVIEW BROADWAY CRITIC
NEW YORK — Watching "Dance of the Vampires" at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, a question can-cans by and kicks its way into the spotlight: What did they think they were doing?
"Phantom of the Opera," obviously, yes. But "Vampires" has strayed into "Phantom" territory from quite a different origin. The inconceivable marriage of forms achieves a marriage of irreconcilable differences.
"Dance of the Vampires" is based on Roman Polanski's lunatic film spoof "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), which he made after "Repulsion" but before "Rosemary's Baby" and "Tess."
Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze set Polanski's movie to music, using Steinman's hit song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as a recurring motif, and added a book by David Ives and themselves.
Had they cleaved throughout to the nutty spirit of the movie, they might have succeeded, although their footing is shaky when Transylvania's Count Giovanni Von Krolock (Michael Crawford) emerges from his leathery casket remarking, "God has left the building."
That bad, huh? Not really. Never fully, and certainly not at first.
We're in Lower Belabartokovich (not the least of its witticisms), Carpathia, in "1880-something," characters keep noting. It's the 666th annual garlic festival.
The damned vampires already seem to outnumber the locals. Von Krolock develops a taste for the 18-year-old virgin Sarah (Mandy Gonzalez), daughter of the homophobic innkeeper Chagal (Ron Orbach).
So does young Alfred (Max von Essen), assistant to the pompous "international vampiricist" Professor Abronsius (Rene Auberjonois) of Heidelberg.
Abronsius, a hero in his own mind, is the kind of intellectual weasel to whom no show would permit victory. He does, though, get most of the play's giddiest exclamations ("Sweet Schopenhauer!" "Holy Hegel!"), literate quips ("He'll be on her like a metaphor") and grandest groaners. (As they examine a crypt: "This looks pretty cryptic.")
Von Krolock's gay son Boris (Mark Price), who behaves like Michael Jackson on Jolt, plunges into the romantic fray, favoring Alfred.
Even the senior Von Krolock counts his rejoinders: "I'll show you yours if you show me mine." Between the athletic dancing by the vampires and hobgoblins to John Carrafa's choreography and the cheerfully demented dialogue, "Vampires" hints it could be, with a little fine-tuning, a campy spoof of Gothic musicals such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Jekyll & Hyde."
And then it commits the all but unpardonable mistake of taking itself seriously. Steinman and Kunze apparently couldn't resist trying to build a "Phantom" of their own, replacing the impudence of their first hour with an earnestness no one is likely to see the importance of.
Crawford, still in good reedy voice, delivers "Come With Me," which is so much a "Music of the Night" variant that his earlier triumph in "Phantom" irresistibly floods the memory — with distraction.
The length and quantity of the serious stretches from then on will have half the audience crying "Uncle!" Or better still, "Professor Abronsius! En-Camp here at once and don't leave the stage again."
"Vampires" needs to be goofier. Sobriety saps its initially snappy pace, a deficiency to which director John Rando ("Urinetown") succumbs despite his 2002 Tony win for the irreverent "Urinetown."
Frankly, I had a better time at "Dance of the Vampires" than at the ultimate example of Gothic camp, "The Rocky Horror Show," but that, at least, was all of a piece. "Vampires" is schizophrenic, and as well sung as it is, its mature side just isn't much fun.