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Money Talks; It May Not Sing

A big budget can turn a quality musical into a hit, or, as with 'Dracula' at the La Jolla Playhouse, disguise serious defects.

November 25, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Every new musical requires a certain level of wow--a degree of stagecraft, scenery and effects, special or otherwise, tailored to the story at hand.

Some shows are obliged to provide a bigger wow than others. Think "The Phantom of the Opera"; or rather, don't think, just watch. (Listen, if you must.) A smaller, more impudent diversion such as "The Little Shop of Horrors," to name one of the most widely produced musicals of the last 30 years, doesn't really benefit from a large production. It benefits instead from performers who get the jokes and know how to engage the genre parodies.

There are times, however, when even a wowzer musical project is hindered by money.

Exhibit A closes its world premiere engagement today at the La Jolla Playhouse. It's "Dracula, the Musical," with music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, and direction by Des Mc-Anuff. The project is expected to swoop down on Broadway next fall.

Bram Stoker's novel, the source material for this musical, is a tale of perpetual transformation and many amazements, many eek! moments. Dracula turns into a bat; he flies; he bites. Whatever sort of musical you want to pull out of Stoker's well-worn story, it must seduce in its visual storytelling methods. And decent music wouldn't hurt.

"Dracula" offers a striking contrast to a show McAnuff brought to La Jolla in his previous turn as playhouse artistic director, which ran from 1983 to 1994. A very different famous novel, musicalized, hit the playhouse stage early in that first round: "Big River," an adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with a libretto by William Hauptman and--lucky break here--songs by musical theater newcomer Roger Miller.

"Big River" started out as a story-theater piece with songs, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Its development continued in La Jolla. I caught up with it a couple of years and seven Tony Awards later, on Broadway.

What I found was a low-key, very savvy, evocative show. "Big River," as originally staged by McAnuff, turned out to be not just stage worthy, but restage worthy--a well-built, unfussy piece that could be undertaken by high schools, community theaters, colleges, you name it. An acclaimed revival by North Hollywood's Deaf West Theatre continues through Dec. 16, proving all over again the property's flexibility.

"Big River" at the playhouse back in '84 was a happy occasion. For many reasons, "Dracula" at the playhouse in '01 is less so, relating to reasons of money and quality, two factors rarely having anything to do with one another.

If you cock your ear just so, Mc-Anuff's association with composer Wildhorn, best known for "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Civil War" (the musical, not the war), recalls McAnuff's earlier collaborations with Roger Miller, with Ray Davies of the Kinks ("80 Days") and, famously, with Pete Townshend ("The Who's Tommy"). Wildhorn is another pop veteran ("Where Do Broken Hearts Go" for Whitney Houston) who's interested in the stage. Any problem with that?

Well, yes, actually. The unquantifiable but undeniable notion of "artistic standards" must count for something. Wildhorn, a go-for-the-throat anthem-peddler, is an accomplished hack at best. Years ago, when Wildhorn's "Jekyll & Hyde" premiered at Houston's Alley Theatre, I thought to myself: The line has to be drawn somewhere. When this particular composer is being nurtured and encouraged by a major resident theater, something has gone drastically wrong.

Wildhorn's score has been so artfully dressed up by the orchestrators, it almost sounds good. Almost. But if "Dracula" at the playhouse is distinguished by anything besides its frequent use of flying rigs, it is this internal tug of war between McAnuff and company's fancy atmospherics and the innate mediocrity of the music.

Take the money away from "Dracula," and the show wouldn't satisfy in the least. McAnuff's staging and John Arnone's scenic design, recalling their teamwork on "Tommy," hold up their end of the theatrical bargain, and then some. McAnuff's staging, so tight it squeaks, diverts your attention from the problems. But that's not what you want from a musical. You don't want your mind to be taken off the story and the songs. You want to be consumed by a collaborative magic act. In La Jolla, you're all too aware of the money being spent for scenic and directorial flourishes. None of which can improve the quality of the score, and the more accomplished but ultimately familiar storytelling.

There's a lesson to be learned from the current hit revival of "Flower Drum Song" in Los Angeles (extended through Jan. 13). The show was originally scheduled for an Ahmanson Theatre engagement. That fell through; the production was reconceived for the more intimate Mark Taper Forum and a smaller budget. The change in locale and scale led to a better, more viable show.

It's not without problems, but it works. The massive libretto overhaul and the various reworkings of the score have actually made that score sound better. Now, if they like, the backers can throw a little more money at it. The real work has been done.

To quote David Mamet's "Heist": "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." But I wonder if, given a more frugal production budget, the "Dracula" folks would have been forced to figure out a few things in terms of the storytelling. Even so, you'd still be left with Wildhorn.

I wonder if there isn't something corrupt in the whole business of Wildhorn's "Dracula" sucking up a lot of precious nonprofit arts dollars. Is it idealistic to wish things were different? Perhaps. It's certainly inconsistent, given my admiration for "Big River" and its not-for-profit development.

In the end, quality must stand for something.

And money can't always buy you quality. *

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