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KIND OF A 'DRAC' ANEMIC VAMPIRE MUSICAL NIBBLES MORE THAN BITES.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

ging the story of ``Dracula'' to the stage for what must be the 666th time, a very high-powered creative team in San Diego has comfortably demonstrated that not only does it know its Bram Stoker, it knows its Andrew Lloyd Webber as well. Given that this team's librettist and lyricist also were responsible for Lloyd Webber's ``Sunset Boulevard'' - to which ``Dracula'' owes a not insubstantial visual and literary debt - I suppose that means the product on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse is not plagiarism. Merely a stunning lack of originality.

This story should sound familiar: A hideous, lonely creature who lives in the most Gothic splendor money can buy seduces a young beauty who should end up with someone equally young and comely. That echoes ``Sunset's'' Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis, certainly. A better parallel is the title character and his musical protege in ``Phantom of the Opera.'' Both of those musicals did a better job of fiend humanization than does ``Dracula.''

d Webber's musicals also possessed more elevator-friendly - if not necessarily better-quality - music than what composer Frank Wildhorn has come up with for ``Dracula.'' John Arnone's sets are clearly trying to give the late-'80s mega-spectacles a run for their cash. You will likely emerge from ``Dracula'' applauding the scenery and perhaps impressed with portions of Des McAnuff's staging. If flash for flash's sake is what Broadway is requiring these days, then New York audiences - who likely will see ``Dracula'' next - deserve to be bitten.

``Dracula's'' biggest hurdles - ones co-authors Christopher Hampton and Don Black aren't able to overleap - are character and focus. Stoker's novel had a hero, or at least a narrator. The musical gives us an anti-hero and a bunch of scarecrows. Is the Prince of Darkness (played by a striking Tom Hewitt) our dramatic center just because he happens to make a semi-noble gesture when the time is right? Is our touchstone Mina Harker (Jenn Morse), the proto-feminist object of Drac's affection and pretty much the only non-undead woman in the piece? Perhaps fearless vampire hunter Van Helsing (Tom Flynn) should be the man who's telling the tale, even if he is stodgy and more than a little bit sexist.

The ``Dracula'' team seems to be with Mina, the closest thing Hampton and Black offer to a fully realized character. Morse is attractive and sings sweetly enough, but she's a standard imperiled heroine. Her legal-clerk husband, Jonathan Harker (Tom Stuart), isn't much weightier.

Harker is the first character to encounter the Transylvanian Count after traveling to Dracula's lair to bring some legal documents. The Count is planning to move to London, presumably because his reputation in town is starting to scare people a little too much. He's got an insider scoping the territory, the bug-noshing Renfield (William Yomans).

Harker is the Count's welcomed guest, even though he rarely sees his host. Once Dracula sees a picture of Mina, his quest takes on a new urgency. Harker is served up to a trio of busty lusty she-vamps while the Count ships out for England. His first conquest: Mina's dearest friend, Lucy (Amy Rutberg)

The action plays out in dark castle rooms, overhung gardens and, whenever possible, bedrooms (remember, Dracula also represents forbidden sexuality unleashed). Moving sidewalks bring people and scenery into place for some spooky effects, but McAnuff's flourish of choice is aerial acrobatics. With soaring and dropping at every available opportunity, ``Dracula'' contains more flights than any 15 productions of ``Peter Pan.''

The score? Lots of ballads, predictably, and sung-through semi-operatic plot explanations. An entranced Mina sings a number called ``The Heart Is Slow to Learn,'' while van Helsing and his trio of vampire hunters have the up-tempo ``Deep in the Darkest Night.'' Wildhorn's fans will likely find deeper fare than the swashbuckling fluff of the composer's ``The Scarlet Pimpernel.''

Between the costumes, the backward-aging makeup and all those cool entrances, there really is no way to take your eyes off Hewitt's Dracula. For one thing, the man is enormous, and he's got that malevolent hypnotic action going for him. To some extent, Hewitt is working against the overfamiliarity of the Dracula legend: How are we not supposed to giggle when any actor playing the Count has to deliver the line ``I am not a wine drinker'' (pronounced ``vine drinker'')?

Considering how much the authors seem to be struggling with Dracula's place in the story (hero? fiend? love-struck lonely guy?), it's almost a relief to have Mina take center stage in the second act. Almost.

And what about that grand gesture when the count - who has been such a fiend for so long - decides to remain a loner through eternity? Drac, you old softie, who knew you had a heart of gold underneath all that black?

``DRACULA THE MUSICAL''

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 25.

Tickets: $21 to $65. Call (858) 550-1010.

Our rating: Two stars

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

The Prince of Darkness (Tom Hewitt) seduces young Lucy Westenra (Amy Rutberg) in ``Dracula The Musical.''
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 16, 2001
Words:865
Previous Article:SOUND CHECK.
Next Article:'AUDITION': THANK YOU, THAT'S ENOUGH.
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