'Dance of the Vampires' ('Le Bal des Vampires'): Theater Review

Detlev Overmann
"Bal des Vampires"
A toothless theatrical turnip

Roman Polanski himself directs this first French-language incarnation of the flop Broadway musical based on his 1967 film, "The Fearless Vampire Killers"

The French equivalent of theatrical turkey is "turnip," and the French-language musical adaptation of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, staged by the maestro himself and called Dance of the Vampires (Le Bal des Vampires), is an enormous, all-singing, all-dancing turnip, a toothless musical in which the only moving parts belong to the gigantic rotating and sliding sets.

Inexplicably a hit production in Mitteleuropa, this musical was originally written in German by Michael Kunze and features music by Jim Steinman, the man behind Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler. His bombastic work for these crooners often creeps into the musical’s score and songs. It's as if Steinman had the nagging suspicion he’s incapable of writing another semi-decent tune so it’s better to rework proven hits, even if the songs are a bad fit for the story. This open-ended Paris run, which premieres Oct. 16, could very well go the same way as the ill-fated 2002 Broadway production starring Michael Crawford, which played for just two months — unless the French are more German than we give them credit for.   

After filming Carnage an adaptation of the French play God of Carnage — in English, and the American play Venus in Fur in French, Polish-born polyglot Polanski directs this first French-language version of Dance of the Vampires, whose German-language, Vienna-based ur-production he also staged back in 1997. The director, who has several other stage and opera credits to his name, thus returns to this cultish but rather weak -— for a musical -— source material, perhaps because it strikes a personal chord. (He starred in his own film as the innocent and in-love Alfred, opposite his ill-fated future wife Sharon Tate.)

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The musical opens, like the film, with the snowbound voyage of Professor Abronsius (David Alexis) and his assistant, the youngster Alfred (Daniele Carta Mantiglia). They arrive practically frozen at an inn in Transylvania run by Chagal (Pierre Samuel). After a silly, ensemble-rousing song about the omnipresence of garlic, they spend the night there, and Alfred falls for the nubile if rather naive 16-year-old innkeeper's daughter Sarah (Rafaelle Cohen), with whom he shares a bathroom. This also results in a couple of instances during which Sarah rather unnecessarily bares her behind, though any precise information on fairytale Transylvania’s age of consent was not available when going to press.

The youngsters’ innocent puppy love stands in stark contrast to the acts of the hypocritical Chagal senior. Much to the chagrin of his Rubenesque wife (Solange Milhaud), he tries to have his way with their redheaded maid (Moniek Boersma), though he literally barricades the door of Sarah’s room at night to keep men out. As if by punishment, she’s seduced by Count von Krolock (Stephane Metro), a decadent vampire who clearly shops for clothes at Transylvania’s only discount Halloween store. The Count lives in a nearby castle that the professor and his assistant visit in the second act, both to satisfy Abronsius’ scientific curiosity about the undead and Alfred’s need to find and free Sarah.

The 1967 film was a send-up of the vampire-movie genre decades before Twilight. Most of the comedy comes at irregular intervals here and is overly broad, sub-par Mel Brooks-type slapstick that feels as old as some of the vampires themselves.

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The best films of Polanski, such as Repulsion, the movie he made just before Vampire Killers, constantly toggle between ambiguity and razor-sharp precision. But that's also missing in a show in which neither the dramatic nor the romantic stakes are all that high. This is partially because the material has no real protagonist, which makes audience identification with anyone very hard (there are obviously no closeups, which can partially hide this problem in a film). What’s supposed to be the central love triangle, between Alfred, von Krolock and Sarah, is also rather weakly drawn, with only the most basic hints of motivation for the characters’ behavior.

It doesn’t help that the near-constant songs are often toe-curlingly bad, with French lyricist Nicolas Nebot struggling to adapt the necessary French words to the number of syllables of the original German. Steinman also falls back far too often on his the musical vernacular of most famous work for Meatloaf and Tyler. The second-act opener, based on "Total Eclipse of the Heart," is especially cringe-worthy.

The use of some very recognizable material occasionally threatens to turn the proceedings into a jukebox musical in vampire clothes, something that’s reinforced by Polanski’s decision to end almost all songs as if they were the final encore at a rock concert and the performers must be applauded. This constantly interrupts what little dramatic flow there is. The choreography, while acrobatic, also feels much too heterogeneous, and the last number, entirely unconnected to the rest, is like something out of music-video era MTV.  

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Most of the cast wasn’t particularly in shape during the press preview caught, with only the 22-year-old, Italian-born Mantiglia bringing an effervescence to his Alfred and Boersma impressing in her big number -— though why a maid has one in the first place is anyone’s guess — until she has to hit the song’s higher ranges. Metro, as the vampire, and Cohen, as Sarah, never soar, perhaps because most of their songs are so generic.

The numerous and often enormous multi-level sets are the production's one saving grace, as they at least keep the eyes occupied while various elements rotate, fold up or are lowered or slid onto the stage. These are credited to William Dudley, who also worked on the original Austrian production, and while there’s a distinct '90s-vibe to the way the whole show is packaged -— including Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design -— the sheer force of its stagecraft still has impact.

A conspicuous exception is the sequence in which the vampires and humans dance in front of mirrors and only the humans are reflected (Polanksi attempted something similar in his version of Les Contes d'Hoffmann). The sequence uses back projection and requires perfect timing from the actors to match their prerecorded movements, which was almost comically lacking on press night. At least it was good for a few unscripted laughs.    

Cast: Stephane Metro, Rafaelle Cohen, Solange Milhaud, Sinand Bertrand, David Alexis, Moniek Boersma, Guillaume Geoffroy, Daniele Carta Mantiglia

Director: Roman Polanski

Book and lyrics: Michael Kunze, French adaptation by Nicolas Nebot

Music: Jim Steinman

Set designer: William Dudley

Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone

Costume designer: Sue Blane

Sound designer: Thomas Strebel

Projection designer: Benjamin Pearcy

Music director: Michael Reed

Presented by Stage Entertainment and VBW

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