In this Week’s Kool Kat, we break the rules and give it to more than one person – those crazy kids in the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra. Don’t miss DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA before it closes this Sunday, October 14 at 7 Stages.
DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA melds JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with Grand Guignol in a production that not only rocks hard and delivers a horrific, non-twinkly Nosferatu, but also is surprisingly true to Bram Stoker‘s original novel. Not to be missed, this DRACULA brings the rock opera genre into the 21st century with the energy, musical, acting and staging quality of an off-Broadway find. Seeing it is like discovering HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH in 1998 or THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in a tiny upstairs theater in London in 1973. But hey, wait a second, this is Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre, not New York, not London, not even LA or Chicago. And it’s not Rob Zombie, but Rob Thompson. How the HELL did that happen?
The short answer is years of hard work by the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra, a motley crew of badass tattoo-covered Atlanta musicians, stage professionals and grassroots performance artists whom you haven’t heard of most likely unless you live here. If you don’t live in Atlanta, you probably won’t believe this gang of music misfits, most with ultra-light theater experience, has produced a libretto, lyrics, acting and staging that set DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA tooth and claw above community theater.Maybe you’ll be more convinced when I point out that they did have the benefit of Del Hamilton, a seasoned internationally acclaimed director, to guide them. DRACULA will be the last of 80 shows which he has directed before he steps down as artistic director of 7 Stages, building with Faye Allen, a reputation for this company as one of Atlanta’s most edgy. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s vision that he was willing to take on a venture in the pop culture/horror arena as his swan song (though he will continue to stay active in 7 Stages). Clearly Hamilton drove the cast and production crew to their highest potential, ably assisted by longtime Atlanta actor Justin Wellborn, who returned from Los Angeles to work on DRACULA.
In JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, the son of God is reborn as a rock star, and so likewise is the iconic vampire dark lord of fiction as Rob Thompson emerges on stage, dressed as Vlad the Impaler with a long dark mane, a Gothic red velvet vest so pointy it looks like it could cut you, and tight black leather pants. At first he is bending his fingers and arching his back, creating a shadow image creepily reminiscent of Max Schreck in the iconic silent NOSFERATU (1922). But soon recharged by the promise of a new feeding ground in England, he is re-uniformed in a blood-red cape, red and black boot chaps and a sword. With his petulance, cockiness and powerful voice, Jim Morrison meets Ozzy as Thompson emotes on the power of blood to a heavy beat right out of Black Sabbath. This Count is no romantic sparkly vampire, but a black metal superstar of evil whose immortality is dependent on the death of humanity.
When ATLRetro reviewed the first act, then titled HAUS VON DRACUL, during a trial run last year, we called that review “Dracula Superstar but Love is the Answer.” That tagline still holds true in that DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA is unique among Dracula dramatizations for having a strong/non-wimpy rendition of Jonathan Harker in the transcendent voice and passionate mannerisms of African-American actor/musician Chris Love. With a lion’s mane of long black hair, Love is already a daring visual choice for a role too often played close-cropped and straight-laced. Now Thompson has caught up with Love, but Love, as Harker, continues to embody the everyman (us by proxy) as he arrives on stages and declares in a moving opening solo that “a good man is a true man” and later a stranger in a strange land, “all alone away from Mina.” Bram Stoker’s novel is written in the epistolary form with characters expressing their ebbing terror through diary entries and letters, and this rock opera masterfully embraces that format, often taking lines directly from the book and making the audience a confidante. In Love’s hands, Harker’s predicament gets progressively lonelier, reminds us that the vampire is evil and not to be embraced, progressively raising the stakes and easing the first act towards a sense of doom with no hope and escape.
Beyond Dracula’s tight leather pants, the “sex” side of rock n roll comes center stage early in Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three wives, played to a perfect sirenic pitch by Muleskinner MacQueen Trio chanteuse Naomi Lavender (who also plays a gypsy woman and Mina), Madeline Brumby (known in the neo-exploitation movie world for her breakout role in also-Atlanta-produced DEAR GOD! NO!) and Jessika Cutts (who also plays Lucy). Their breasts show through white diaphanous robes, a clear homage to the sexy female vampires of Universal, Hammer and the lesbian vampire B-movie genre, and this production ups their otherworldly quality by adding exotic Eastern European headpieces and dance moves reminiscent of a Kali ritual. The actresses achieve a chemistry in their ethereal voices and interplay that only heightens the erotic tension and also their profound loneliness, trapped in the castle with the Count.
The first act showcases how to effectively use minimalist sets, lighting and an ensemble cast. No coach is needed with just Harker sitting vulnerably on steps while a mad driver thrashes a long whip, a small herd of humans outfitted in haphazard fur pelts furiously keeping pace to a metal beat. Less is more is also well-executed in the similarly soundtracked (the beat always gets heavy when Dracula is at his most bloodthirsty) ship scene conveying the hopelessness of the captain (Rick Atkinson) trying in vain (vein?) to keep his ship afloat in a stormy sea while the Count devours his crew in one of the play’s bloodiest scenes (watch out, front row!).
DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA has to introduce a lot of new characters rapidly in the second act, and this task is mostly achieved well, including characters who appear in the book but often excluded from screen and stage. In a poppy update of Cole Porter’s “Tom, Dick and Harry” from KISS ME KATE, Lucy (Jessika Cutts) enthusiastically emotes to her best friend Mina (Naomi Lavendar) about her three suitors, earnest, bowler-hat-wearing Arthur (musician Jed Drummond in his stage debut); Dr. Seward (Charlotte, NC-based actor Chaz Pofahl), who runs the asylum (how romantic!); and Quincey, an American cowboy played with appropriate “home-on-the-range” swagger and just the right nod of humor by Atlanta horror Renaissance man-about-town Shane Morton (Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow, DEAR GOD! NO!, Gargantua, etc.) against type – in other words, more country than rock (Note: because of Shane also being the mastermind of the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, Arnie Lowder is now playing this role Thurs-Sat for the last few weeks of the run).
We already have a sense of Mina from Harker’s songs about her. Like in so many Dracula dramatizations, she could be just a romantic foil and vampire victim but fortunately Lavender’s unique voice – Kate Bush meets Janis Joplin, with a twist of Jane Wiedlin?! – and sheer dynamic energy forestall that possibility, ultimately ensuring she will be an equal to the otherwise male vampire-hunting team. Renfield’s crazed obsessiveness with Dracula is portrayed with a manic frenzy and an appropriately metalhead of frizzy curly hair in a breakout performance by Rick Atkinson, who has been with the L5P Rockstar Orchestra since its first production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in the mid 2000s.
Meanwhile, Dracula in London is more of an omnipresent villain, now re-energized by a city full of fresh blood into full throttle rock star and re-attired in a black leather jacket (think actual suit jacket – Steve Tyler, not Sid Vicious). Fortunately Thompson and company recognize that he needs a similarly rocked-out foil not a dawdling elderly professor. Not your mama’s Van Helsing, this vampire hunter in purple is Doctor Strange meets Freddie Mercury. Jeff Langston, of hard-rocking Atlanta-based bands Ledfoot Messiah and AM Gold, is just the hard-edged leader to unite Lucy’s triad of suitors to try and save first her life (no, they don’t succeed despite a steampunky transfusion gizmo) and then Mina’s as the Count makes them his inevitable victims. Ultimately, the intrepid group must travel all the way back to Transylvania to finish the battle, and as for the end, if you’ve read the book, well, you know it. And if you haven’t, you may well be surprised.
Ultimately that DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA is bound and determined to be tightly faithful to Stoker’s novel is both its strength and an occasional weakness, however, because occasionally that fealty causes some dramatic challenges. For example, after act one, it seems impossible when Mina receives a letter from Jonathan Harker that he has somehow escaped Castle Dracula. (Maybe a side performance showing Harker escape in pantomime might clarify?). Another scene that felt like it needed a little more work was a city scene in which Harker spies the Count for the first time in London stalking female victims. But these really are only small complaints in what overall is a fantastic production. Let’s hope for an encore soon and more runs well beyond Atlanta.
All photos courtesy of 7 Stages and DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA and used with permission.