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Meadow Brook Theatre certainly enjoys its spooky-scary this time of year, and indeed, its production of Dracula, A Rock Opera (by John R. Briggs, in collaboration with Dennis West) excels in its moments of fright and danger. The audience gets a glimpse of it in a foreboding early scene in which Transylvanian villagers painstakingly explain to foreigner Jonathan Harker (Eric Gutman) exactly what Dracula is and what he does...if only Harker had listened. However, the play's biggest accomplishment is a thrilling graveyard confrontation between vampire hunters and their prey — the staging and special effects considerably heighten the tension and make for a spine-tingling experience. Director Travis W. Walter clearly knows how to do suspense, and revels in the kill-or-be-killed standoffs between good and evil.

Unfortunately for a production that so champions its action scenes, much of the show feels frustratingly inactive by comparison. Most of the first act concerns Jonathan corresponding with his faraway love, Wilhelmina (Andrea Mellos), and slowly — really slowly — coming to realize what every viewer already knows by virtue of the show title. The story also pauses to concern itself with the marriage of Lucy (Katie Hardy) and Arthur (Rusty Mewha) and her corresponding rejection of Dr. Seward (Caleb Gilbert), a plot point that simply drags in contrast to the exciting parts and has almost no tangible effect on later interactions. The fault may lie in a combination of audience familiarity and format: because the viewer already knows the basics of the story, the details of the performance are what matter, but it's hard to subtly play awakening comprehension when the score requires one to essentially wail it. Rock opera has little room for nuance, which is too bad because several of these scenes feel like marking time without it.

As the title character, Billy Konsoer has a strong voice and presence, but lacks an otherworldly malice to make him truly frightening. Similarly, his trio of vampire wives (Janet Caine, Jennifer George, and Ann O'Brien) sing and move gorgeously but want for a spark of pure evil. For the good guys, standouts are Mellos, whose pleading vigil over a wounded man is phenomenal, and Paul Hopper, who howls as occult expert/narrator Professor Van Helsing. The cast also includes several children, whose singing and acting (especially in the absence of onstage coaching) is impressive. Sound designer Mike Duncan, music director Daniel Feyer, and orchestrator Michael Tilley tackle the inherent conundrum of presenting big rock music in a big space without drowning out single performers' voices; to their credit, the instrumentals and amplified singing are well balanced, and most of the fast-moving lyrics can be deciphered.

Gothic is the watchword on Brian Kessler's multilevel castle set, which features brilliant cuckoo-clock ingenuity that ensures swift movement of set pieces. Lighting designer Reid G. Johnson takes advantage of the stained-glass set elements, hinting at the safety of daylight and then yanking it away. Liz Moore's costume design lends a period look to the living characters that stands in contrast to the contemporary rock inspiration of the Dracula clan. Special effects are used sparingly to retain their shock value, although some found greater success than others — in one ballad between Dracula and Wilhelmina, the technical challenges rendered a sensual pairing static and awkward.

The production elements that bring magic, violence, sex, and rock to Dracula, A Rock Opera are formidable. Walter's staging, too, is gripping when the vampire mythology comes to the fore. Still, in the absence of the undead, the energy tends to go regular-dead, until the next incredible showpiece.


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