The vampire flies on, and our fascination with him never seems to falter. We find him in television shows, teenage novels and the pulsing hearts of teenage readers, and in films both serious and camp — from F.W. Murnau’s subtle, haunted Nosferatu to Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, with its unforgettable response line when a pretty blonde raises her crucifix against the dark form in her doorway: “Oy, vey,” says the fellow in a thick Yiddish accent. “Have you got the wrong vampire.” Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer succumbed briefly to Dracula’s charms in one episode (and German actor Rudolf Martin had plenty of charm to succumb to) before remembering her mission and driving a stake through his heart. My Hungarian stepfather loved informing wide-eyed little boys of his place of birth: “I come from Transylvania,” he’d say while they laughed and shivered. “Draacoola country.”
The traditions are all there in Frank Wildhorn’s musical Dracula, currently showing at the Aurora Fox, with Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics adhering fairly closely to Bram Stoker’s famous nineteenth-century novel. There’s the evil count himself; his slithery vampire wives; the demented, muttering assistant; strings of garlic and a circle of protective holy water; and the creature’s beautiful prey: Lucy, the blonde who actually falls victim to him, and the innocent young dark-haired Mina, for whom he develops a strange and mystical fascination. As in the book, Mina’s fiancé, Jonathan Harker, arrives at Dracula’s Transylvanian castle to discuss a real-estate deal: Dracula wants to acquire a home in England, where he will intensify his predations. In London, Dracula’s insane servant Renfield (an excellent Gustavo Marquez) prepares for his arrival, Mina (Jenna Bainbridge) discusses her upcoming marriage, and her friend Lucy (lively, pretty McKayla Marso) finally chooses between her three suitors. Lucy will, of course, become a vampire and have to be destroyed, and, led by vampire expert Van Helsing (a strong performance by Gregg Price), Harker (the convincing Thadd Kreuger) and Lucy’s suitors will attempt to save Mina from a similar fate — which is hard to do when she’s increasingly mesmerized by Dracula, whose thoughts now whisper in her head.
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Dracula was savaged by New York critics when it opened on Broadway in 2004: “The Bat Awakens, Stretches, Yawns,” said Ben Brantley in the New York Times, while CurtainUp’s Les Gutman spoke of the “twitching, yawning and early departing of fellow reviewers” and John Simon, the famed, acerbic critic of New York magazine, pronounced, “Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula sucks.” Yet in Europe, where it opened in Austria in 2007, the show earned raves, perhaps because it had been somewhat revised, perhaps because Europeans, with their ghost-ridden history, have a better understanding of the dark forces that can take over a human heart.
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Watching this Dracula, I was puzzled by the contempt of the New York critics. True, although this show does raise a shiver or two, it isn’t likely to haunt your dreams. But it isn’t silly-funny or easily dismissed, either; there’s a power and fascination to the ambitious production directed by El Armstrong. Under executive producer Charlie Packard, the Fox has definitely raised its game, and this Dracula is part of an exceptionally interesting and focused local season titled “Life on the Margins of Polite Society” that includes Suzan-Lori Parks’s controversial adaptation of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the world premiere of local writer Charles Wefso’s Myth, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The cast and crew prove they’re up to the challenge in Dracula. The sets for this complex story function well, from the large, moving set pieces of Dracula’s castle to the lighter pieces and more flexible use of space employed later. The acting is universally fine, and there isn’t a weak voice on the stage — a good thing, since the score is fiendishly difficult to sing and also to play, but the four-person orchestra, led by Martha Yordy, does yeoman work. Most important, however, are the two leads. Jenna Bainbridge has the porcelain beauty that Mina requires, as well as strength and dignity. And Leonard Barrett has a hugely powerful presence, convincing in love, hate and menace; his supple, jazz-inflected singing can fill the auditorium with threatening sound or soften into heart-melting melody. Yawning, twitching and early departures? Not when Barrett and Bainbridge command the stage.
Dracula, presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through November 6, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.