PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lestat: Sir Elton Takes Wing

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lestat: Sir Elton Takes Wing
I thought Elton John seemed a tad catatonic after his Lestat landed at the Palace April 25. Then, someone pointed out to me that I was interviewing a Tussaud-like likeness of him left on the second floor of the brand-new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.
From Top: Sir Elton John; Hugh Panaro; Anne Rice; Gregg Edelman, Carolee Carmello, Zoe and Ethan Edelman; Kathie Lee Gifford; Rachel York; Kelli Carpenter and Rosie O'Donnell.
From Top: Sir Elton John; Hugh Panaro; Anne Rice; Gregg Edelman, Carolee Carmello, Zoe and Ethan Edelman; Kathie Lee Gifford; Rachel York; Kelli Carpenter and Rosie O'Donnell. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Less than an hour after the curtain fell on his $12 million musical reading of Anne Rice's first two Vampire Chronicles—at the theatre that housed his Tony-winning Aida for a respectable run—this was all that remained of Sir Elton, this and scads of costumes and memorabilia in the "Elton John: Elements of an Icon" exhibit going on there till April 30.

He did a 20-minute inny-outty and was outta there like a bat out of hell (if, of course, Lestat were a bat variety of vampire—which it, and he, aren't). Word trickled down from on high at Barlow-Hartman Public Relations that a very pressing benefit commanded his attention across town, and who am I to throw a monkey wrench into his considerable charity commitments? At least he left his stars to soldier on, which they gleefully did.

Hugh Panaro, the Lestat lead, led the en masse cast charge into the Columbus Circle facility. Since their show was presented (i.e., bankrolled) by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, only a minimum arm-twist was required for the parent company to turn over the keys to the building's first four floors so everybody could party hearty after the play.

Actually, the party didn't extend beyond the Samsung Lounge on the third floor. The fourth floor features the art work of Bernie Taupin, John's long-time lyricist, who makes his Broadway bow with Lestat. (John's other Broadway shows—The Lion King and Aida—had Tim Rice lyrics, and his next—Billy Elliot, arriving here from England in '08—has lyrics by the writer and the director of that film, Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry).

Greeting guests on the first floor were the sketches and costumes designed for Lestat's San Francisco run by Wicked Tony winner Susan Hilferty, who was just warming up for Broadway. The visual splendors wrought by the design team (Hilferty, set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Kenneth Posner) are worthy of the Palace, or any palace. The celebs were in skimpy supply at the party, but they made a very impressive united front at the theatre, some shaking their tambourines for John: Ashford and Simpson, Rosie O'Donnell and Kelly Carpenter, that blonde dazzler billed believably as Jewel, Ty Burrell, Tony LoBianco, Adam Duritz, Alana Hamilton, Rob Thomas, Eric McCormack, who's doing Some Girl(s)—rehearsing now, performing June 8-28—at the Lucille Lortel, Kylie Minogue, "Sopranos" shrink Lorraine Bracco, Jai Rodriguez, idling "American Idol" Constantine Maroulis, Scissor Sisters and John Edward.

The pre-show pandemonium befitted a beloved, beknighted rock star-turned-Broadway composer, and the press were out in full force, with British accents particularly plentiful. One lady broadcaster from across the pond, a cheeky thing, broke up Jon Bon Jovi by asking him at point-blank range, "What does Elton bring to a vampire story?" It cracked him up. "I could really knock that one out of the park," he replied, but he didn't go there.

After the cast bows, John paddled on stage in a tight black tux, followed by collaborators Rice, adapter Linda Woolverton, Taupin and the evening's forgotten man, director Robert Jess Roth.

"I was just singing the praises of Lestat," announced Star Jones, when approached at the post-party on the Elton John floor where the favorable fumes were particularly pungent. It didn't surprise her the music was good. She was surprised to find Lestat "tragically sexy."

Kathy Lee Gifford went into a chorus of Carolee Carmello, cast as the mother whom Lestat turns into a vampire and "intimate" for all eternity. "I am her biggest fan on this planet," gushed Gifford, pulling back just a bit with "next to my director, Eric Shaeffer." Both, in fact, are hoping Carmello will play '20s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in Saving Aimee, which Shaeffer will put into rehearsal next March to premiere at his Signature Theatre. Gifford did the book, lyrics and a little composing on the side, but the bulk of the music was written by David Friedman and David Pomeranz, who composed her Off-Broadway Under the Bridge. One of the voices on that particular CD, Gifford noted, belongs to Allison Fischer, who is making her Broadway debut as the lethal waif Lestat and his new second-act friend, Louis (Jim Stanek), adopt—to their dismay—when the storyline suddenly switches centuries (18th to 19th) and cities (Paris to New Orleans).

Stanek, a former Forum "Hero" and a survivor of Indiscretions, was plainly pleased to be back on Broadway playing the last in the line of Lestat's lovers. "I love this character and the story we tell," he said, "the family unit and the family dysfunction and the family love that is in this little vampire family. My character begins and ends with the little girl, as far as I'm concerned. When she comes into our lives, everything changes. I love that I get to share the stage with Allison Fischer and Hugh Panaro. This is her first Broadway show, and I expect great things from her—with this show and with future shows that she does."

Also making their Broadway bows—the hard way, it turned out—were the other men in Lestat's life: Drew Sarich as the combative Armand and Roderick Hill as the love-battered Nicolas. Both their characters went through radical changes in the big trek East.

"My role has changed a lot since San Francisco—a lot," said Sarich, "like 180 degrees in a different direction! In San Francisco, we went in the direction of a Satanic priest—sort of a Satanic Javert—then, when we started working on it here in New York, we started discussing Armand's past as a prostitute so we said, 'Let's go the streetwalker avenue.'"

Hill's innocent Nicolas was likewise rewired and rewritten. "The character was very dark and depressed most of the time out there. Now, he's a very joyful, really wonderfully light in the play, and those are the roles I love playing. They've made him now more like me so it's easy for me. I cried like a baby at curtain call. Six months of hard work, and this is my first Broadway show, and it's such a great group of people to work with—it just hit me."

Much of Act I is moved by Lestat's attempt to find peace for Nicolas with a possible panacea from a vampiric Buddha named Marius, who doesn't enter the picture until the closing moments of the act—suspended in the air, a la Elphaba's "Defying Gravity" number.

"If you're listing All-Time Top-Ten Broadway Entrances, this is one of them," asserted Michael Genet, who fills that bill (and harness), satisfying the audience that insists vampire musicals be airborne. When asked how he does it, he pleaded "pixie-dust," but, when pushed a little more, the trade secret emerged: "They have me strapped in six ways from Sunday." And, yes, it is scary: "After they cast me and we were in rehearsals and they told us what we were doing, then they asked me at the eleventh hour, 'Are you afraid of heights?' Luckily for me, I wasn't." And for them, too, it should be added.

A punster ambushed Panaro on his way into the party and asked if he needed a good steak. The actor growled or groaned appreciatively—then proceeded to give a serious response: "I've been laying off the meat, actually, lately. During tech, I did this Master Cleanse. I fasted a few days and detoxed my system so I'm in this healthy-eating mode."

Otherwise, the entrance was pure Panaro-with-panache, looking lean, mean and, thanks to pre-ripped bodice, curly of chest-hair—the look of a fully, and freshly, worked matinee idol. He started in that idiom—as Marius in Les Miserables—and now he spends half a show hunting for Marius. "I know, isn't that kinda weird? I thought of that because my mom and dad are here tonight. They saw my premiere as Marius in Les Miz in Boston, and I thought, 'I wonder whether or not they are making that old connection tonight.'"

His golden tenor pipes are given a good workout in Lestat, and one of his best ballads is one of the last songs to arrive—"Right Before My Eyes." He called it "beautiful Standard Elton. When he sent me that song, I just about flipped out because I already had 'Sail Me Away,' which is a great 11 o'clock number. To have two big songs like that is a real gift." Physically, the show is a StairMaster in overdrive for him. "I kinda always describe it as: You get on the train, and you gotta go for the ride. There's no getting off.' I thought I worked hard in The Phantom of the Opera. I work probably four times as hard in this—because I never leave the stage. I joke with everybody. They say, 'How's the show going?' I say, `Great.' I'm playing Evita Peron.' Seriously. Y'know, it's like you change your clothes on stage. You barely leave the stage, but—I have to be honest—I love it."

Carmello should be so blessed. She's the dynamo of the first act and then spends most of the second act returning to room temperature. You half-way expect her to storm on stage with Sara Ramirez's Spamalot showstopper, "Whatever Happened to My Part?"

"It's very active at the beginning," she admitted, "but it's only the first act so I have a lot of downtime. Sometimes I exercise, sometimes I do sewing projects, sometimes I make phone calls, sometimes I read. Tonight I was curling my hair, getting ready for the party. It depends on the night. It's strange for me to have so much time off. I'm not used to it."

Does she find the whiff of incense about her role a bit unsettling? "No, once she's a vampire, they become soul mates more than mother and son. I think of them more as buddies—buddies who kiss on the mouth. Anne Rice has created this amazing world of Rules for Vampires. All bets are off, once you're in that world. It's all up for grabs."

Throughout all of this, Carmello's self-effacing husband—Gregg Edelman—was on the sidelines playing Norman Maine/Mr. Mom, wrangling their two young children and beaming proudly about his wife's celebrity. But he sees a couple of working-actor weekends ahead. In a few days he heads for Northwestern University to celebrate the jubilee (75th) anniversary of its musical-theatre revues; main order of business will be the induction of composer Larry Grossman into its Hall of Fame. The following weekend (at 3 PM on May 6 and 7), he will join Judy Blazer, Mark Richard Ford and Megan McGinnis at the Museum of the City of New York for a cabaret written and directed by Michael Montel, inspired by the museum's new exhibition, "On the Couch: Cartoons from The New Yorker" and pegged to Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday. The program features songs from Lady in the Dark and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever—y'know, psychiatric musicals. Lestat might make a suitable case for treatment.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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