True Believers

True Believers

There’s a sucker born every day

With “Faith Healer,” playwright Brian Friel delivers one of my favorite types of evenings in the theater—a small story, richly and warmly told that exists as much in the art of the storytelling and the characters as it does in the plot. A series of four monologues, the story is ostensibly about the 20 years that an itinerant faith healer, Frank, spent with his wife, Grace, and manager, Teddy, as they scrapped together a living going town to town in the U.K. That’s at least the surface plot. The real story is about how we create our own realities, how we are separate even in community, and the ways in which the heart can guide choices the head might never make.

The real power of the evening is in the depth of the characters and how director Jonathan Kent has found engaging details and clearly conveyed the interpersonal dynamics of the trio without ever putting them on the stage together. We see a tapestry of stories that are interwoven and interpreted differently depending on the perspective of the character, and yet taken as a whole create one of the most compelling—if cockeyed—buddy-movie-type stories ever. Each characters’ hopes and heartbreaks overlap the others,’ and there is comedy, sadness, and a sense of time loved and time lost throughout.

Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderful performance as Frank. He is appealing and understated, a con man to be sure, but at the same time someone vulnerable and lost in his own story. Cherry Jones does a magnificent job as Grace, who looks back on her life with a bit of a gimlet eye, but at the same time portrays a woman who loved in spite of her better instincts and occasional maltreatment. Ian McDiarmid is sensational as Teddy, a somewhat flamboyant manager, a man whose optimism in the face of continued disaster borders on the unbalanced, but who, in the longest monologue in the piece, displays an inherent humanity that is heartwarming and appealing.

The specificity of Friel’s language and the detailed performances give this piece a remarkable poetry. Despite the story’s bleakness, it has a compelling honesty that is irresistible. It’s an extraordinary achievement by all involved.

Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures obviously missed the fact that recent vampire musicals have lacked bite—or even quality. They have persevered, however, and despite being publicly dismissed by Elton John himself, have brought the new musical “Lestat” to New York, where critical fangs are sharper than any vampire’s tooth. The troubles with the show —and there are many—stem not so much from the ragged score by John, which is caught somewhere between the pop-infatuated oeuvre of Jessica Simpson and the ponderous monotony of “Les Misérables,” the egregious lyrics by Bernie Taupin, or the lame book by Linda Woolverton. It goes far deeper than that—to the problems of shoehorning an epic story into the traditional Broadway musical format. It’s the same problem that plagues “The Color Purple.”

There is so much exposition and so many characters to be introduced that the story becomes muddy and rushed. Part of the unique charm of musicals is when characters burst into song it’s because the moment is so heightened singing makes sense. It’s an abstraction and a convention to be sure, but when the characters are not developed or sketched too loosely, the connection with the audience is lost, and the emotional or comic journey a song offers just doesn’t work.

With “Lestat,” the creators and producers have tried to cram into the show all the elements a general audience would know and love about Anne Rice’s books. This is natural given how familiar they are; but in doing so, they minimize the show’s dramatic potential as the piece becomes driven by plot, rather than character. The story’s all there, but all emotional connection with the audience has been jettisoned. Rice’s characters, who are intriguing, vibrant, sexual, and passionate on the page become flat, sadly, laughable, and ultimately deadly dull on stage. In her books, Rice made the concept of living forever as a vampire perversely appealing, and killing the ultimate kinky sex act. John and crew have made it seem a fate worse than death.

Lestat himself has been reduced to the undead Holden Caulfield with overtones of Madonna, an often petulant and immature vampire in perpetual identity crisis who keeps reinventing himself as times demand. Broadway stalwart Hugh Panaro does as good a job as he can with the role and can be as forgiven for looking ridiculous slaying wolves as he can be praised for the one strong ballad in the piece, “Sail Me Away,” in which we get a real character-driven monologue set to music. Carolee Carmello, another Broadway pro, does well enough by Gabrielle, who starts out as Lestat’s ailing mother and is turned by him into a rampaging vampire. Jim Stanek as Louis, the moping vampire Lestat creates for comfort and companionship, is hobbled by the role but has a great presence.

And it would be impossible to ignore Claudia, the little girl Lestat renders undead to be his and Louis’ little doll. Allison Fischer plays the role, which consists of whining and one song, “I Want More,” an unintended tribute to the death of Broadway sings and singing. The number is Claudia’s prolonged, solipsistic scream, and Fischer’s performance is a discomfiting freak show—all belt and no technique. One can practically hear the nodes forming on her vocal chords as her artless bellow rains torment on the audience.

The rest of the cast is adequate, though terribly undirected by Robert Jess Roth.

Lestat is not so disastrous as to be camp, which makes it all the more painful to sit through. It is merely boring, uninspired, misguided, and leaves one feeling dead all over, and that two-and-a-half hours can seem like eternity.