You might expect a musical about Bram Stoker entitled Children Of The Night to be the Dracula tale (with songs), but you’d be wrong.  Scott Martin’s original musical, now getting its first fully-staged production at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, turns out to be a love story, albeit of the unrequited kind, and a love letter to the theater—and to the “children of the night” who are its actors.

Audiences are doubtless most familiar with Dracula from the Hollywood horror classic and Bela Lugosi’s definitive portrayal of the title vampire, but Stoker’s blood-sucking Transylvanian actually began his living death as a 1897 pulp novel.  At the time of its publication, Stoker was working for London’s Lyceum Theatre, run by actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, a stage star known for his dramatic sweeping gestures and elegant manner (and the man who inspired the character of Dracula). Stoker, like his then imprisoned friend Oscar Wilde, was a man who knew well “the love that dare not speak its name,” and the object of his one-sided passion was Irving, his closest friend for over twenty years.  Children Of The Night centers on Stoker’s determined but unsuccessful efforts to persuade Irving that Count Dracula could be the defining role of his illustrious career.

For its World Premiere engagement, the Katselas Theatre Company has assembled a cast and creative team of the kind one usually finds on the stages of our most prestigious larger theaters—an illustrious director, Broadway and National Tour stars, a multiple award-winning choreographer, and a superlative design team. Still, a musical is only as good as its book, music, and lyrics, and Martin’s (yes, he is writer, composer, and lyricist) is a very good one indeed.

At lights up, Bram (Robert Patteri) has assembled a group of actors for a first reading of the stage version of his novel, and in “As Mr. Stoker Says,” the thespians opine that “The play is mediocre, but we’ll do as Mr. Stoker says,” one of Martin’s many clever rhymes.  Bram tries to explain to Henry that even though Count Dracula has been dead for centuries, he isn’t really dead. Henry: He’s dead?  Bram: Undead. Henry: But dead. Bram: Yes! Henry: You’ve written a drama for me and the character’s dead? 

Henry absolutely refuses to even consider playing Dracula, even when Bram and theatrical legend Ellen Terry (Teri Bibb) evoke youthful memories of the threesome’s longtime friendship in the theater in an effort to convince him: “We were too naïve to be frightened, and it only heightened our desire.” But it’s still a no-go for Henry. 

Other characters are then introduced—Bram’s shrew of a wife (Alison Robertson), elderly stage manager Harry J. Loveday (understudy Joey D’Auria), and Oscar Wilde himself (John Racca), and what began as one man’s effort to persuade a friend to do him the favor of a lifetime develops into a poignant story of a love which has gone on for two decades without ever having been put into words.

Martin’s songs alternate between comedic gems and gorgeous ballads.  There’s the delightful “How Do I Get A Part With The D’Oyly Carte,” sung by a trio of “ladies of the evening” (Melissa Bailey, Ashley Cuellar, and Gabrielle Wagner) with show-biz stars in their eyes. (“Since we’ve been boarded by pirates for years and actually gone down on real gondoliers, how do we get a part with the D’Oyly Carte?”)  Act Two opens with “Diamond Jubilee,” the troupe’s salute to Queen Victoria with an eye to box office receipts. (“Because of the Diamond Jubilee, and the recognition it will bring, we might sell more tickets during summer than we did in spring.”)  Best of all is “The Scottish Play,” advice to a fledgling actress who makes the mistake of saying “Macbeth” inside a theater, featuring probably the longest list of theatrical superstitions ever in a single song. (“Backstage good fortune comes to anyone who sees a cat, especially one that pees.  Just watch where you walk!”)

Children Of The Night’s ballads are sure to appeal to fans of Phantom Of The Opera or Les Miz.  In addition to the title song (Sir Henry’s salute to theater folk), there’s “Still On The Stage” (Ellen’s tribute to her actor parents), “Soliloquy” (Bram’s declaration of love unrequited), “To Live For Love” (Oscar Wilde’s emotional advice to Bram) and “I Never Told You” (Bram’s emotional confession to Henry). 

Martin’s book could prove to be the show’s hardest sell, since audiences may be expecting more Dracula and less Bram, and a plot revolving around unrequited gay love may not have the general appeal that a hit musical usually requires.

On the other hand, with its melodious score, characters that actors can really sink their teeth into, and direction by the legendary David Galligan, there is much to love in Children Of The Night.

The roles of Bram, Henry, and Ellen are sensational star vehicles, and the stars of this World Premiere production are Broadway and National Tour performers whose presence on an L.A. intimate theater stage is a genuine event. Patteri makes for a handsome, charismatic, exquisite-voiced Bram, with acting chops to match. In Sir Henry, Goodman gets the proverbial role of a lifetime, and he acts and sings the heck out of the highly theatrical stage star.  As Ellen, Bibb is loveliness and grace personified, and sings with a glorious soprano rarely heard in a 99-seat theater. D’Auria’s excellent work as Harry J. Loveday belies his understudy status, the actor shining particularly in “The Scottish Play.”

Though Racca’s Oscar Wilde seems a tad robust for a man broken by two years of hard labor, his “To Live For Love” duet with Patteri is beautifully sung. Bailey, Cuellar, and Wagner are a saucy, sexy trio, especially performing “How Do I Get A Part With The D’Oyly Carte.” Robertson does excellent work as Florence, who probably had every reason to be shrewish considering her husband’s two-decade obsession with Sir Henry.  Freddie Lara and Gilmore Rizzo complete the outstanding cast in fine fashion.  In fact, with actors as stellar as these, it’s a shame the Katselas Theatre Company elected not to include their headshots in the program, in contrast to the vast majority of 99-seat plan productions. One would like to be reminded of their faces long after the closing performance.

Children Of The Night is rather light on dance numbers, but the several there are have been choreographed by Lee Martino, and it doesn’t get better than that. Though one can only imagine how much more gorgeous Martin’s songs would be performed by a full orchestra, musical director Ross Kalling on piano fills in nicely indeed in such an intimate setting. Jimmy Cuomo’s sturdy, elegant wood paneled set transforms quickly into various locales, complemented by David Barber’s excellent lighting. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has designed the production’s elegant period costumes, with Robin McWilliams also getting thumbs up for designing the ladies’ late-19th century hairstyles.

Who would ever have thought that Bram Stoker’s life would make for a musical?  Scott Martin clearly did, and the result is a production that entertains and touches the heart, especially with stars like Robert Patteri, Gordon Goodman, and Teri Bibb center stage.

The Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
October 25, 2009

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