Critics drive stake through heart of Elton's vampire epic

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The Independent US

Even before America's drama critics settled in their seats at the Palace Theatre on Broadway this week for the opening of Lestat, a musical based on the madly popular Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice, they smelt blood. With tunes written by Sir Elton John, the show's word of mouth had already been dismal.

But the alacrity with which the arbiters of American theatre proceeded to sink their fangs into the 160-minute extravaganza - it has already cost its producers at Warner Brothers a stunning $12m (£6.7m)- has surprised everyone. If a dog ever wandered on to the Great White Way, this, apparently, is it.

And unhappily for all those involved in Lestat, the critic's lexicon is brimming with clichés lending themselves to the lambasting of a show about blood-sucking and eternal life. Vampires, as you probably know, are meant to live for eternity. Lestat, it would seem, will hardly be so lucky.

The unkind epithets scrawled across America's newspapers range from "bloody awful", to "sucked of life" and the "kiss of death". And there is no escape from the tides of opprobrium for Sir Elton or for his long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, who is responsible for the lyrics.

"Elton John's music lacks a single winner," lamented a writer for the Bloomsberg news wire, "and it is further impoverished by Bernie Taupin's lyrics." Other commentaries on the John tunes included "shockingly banal" and "laughably simplistic".

True, it is not pre-ordained that the "terribly undercooked rice pudding" will necessarily close within weeks as sometimes happens when a show attracts a consensus of critical venom. Ill-reviewed productions very occasionally survive and even flourish.

The folks at Warner, who were counting on Lestat to challenge Disney's domination of the staged musical - think Aida and The Lion King, both with songs by Sir Elton - perhaps saw this coming. Two earlier Broadway attempts at vampire-themed musicals similarly went splat, and a try-out run of Lestat in San Francisco in December drew intense critical disgust.

But if the saviour of Lestat is to appear in the form of tourists (because Lord knows the Broadway elite will now stay away) it may not help that it is replete with elements hardly designed to endear it to the American heartland.

Lestat, after all, is a member of the undead whose sexual entanglements, if not with his mother, are with other men. The poster boy of the Christian right he will not be. The family audience are unlikely to flock to a show which, as USA Today pointed out, has plot twists on family values that "threaten to make Lestat ... the religious right's worst nightmare".

The plot follows the 18th-century Frenchman Lestat, who is bitten by a vampire. The books were made into a successful film starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in 1994.

Dark eroticism was part of what made the Rice books compelling, of course, but not, the critics concluded, when set to jaunty pop music. "The only thing distinguishing this musical from its late, unlamented predecessors is that the lead vampires play for the, er, other team," said The Washington Post.

"Lestat's contribution to art and equality is demonstrating that a gay vampire with a two-octave range can be just as dull as a straight one."

Sir Elton confessed to reporters that he had been obliged to rewrite about "80 per cent" of the songs since the show's crash-landing in San Francisco last year. "I think the result is fantastic," he added. Or should that be "fangtastic"?