'Dracula' pays a visit to vaudeville
Lovers of regional theater are ever on the alert for evidence that local styles are developing away from the glare of Broadway and Hollywood. Hopeful signs are spotted here and there, but for the most part the ''regional'' in theater refers to the address, not to the content or treatment of the material.
Except, that is, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here a distinctive, if anarchically amorphous, theatrical tradition has established itself. San Francisco, Berkeley, and their neighbors have evolved a genuinely regional style which suits the enthusiasms of their unique part of the world.
San Francisco style tends toward the comic and the fantastic, ranging in influence from commedia dell'arte to American Indian mask ritual. It is marked by extremes and wild experiment, and saved by a genial sense of humor about its own excesses. It draws - and gleefully mixes and matches - from a variety of theatrical genres, and many that are extra-theatrical: mime, acrobatics, circus antics, vaudeville, puppetry. It is highly physical. At its best, it enables its practitioners to be serious about everything but themselves.
The lineaments of this regional style can be found in everything from the comic left-wing agitprop of the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the experimentation of the Magic Theatre and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to the arch, self-mocking spoofs (''Bullshot Crummond,'' ''Beach Blanket Babylon Goes to the Stars'') that run forever in this city.
The musical now playing at the Alcazar Theatre, ''Welcome to Transylvania,'' arises from the midst of this tradition. It is a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's ''Dracula,'' a travesty upon it, and a mordant look at theatrical convention. Douglas Johnson, the locally respected exponent of Frisco style who wrote the book and lyrics and directed, has put together a spectacle that is at once corny and eerie, farcical, and just a wee bit sinister.
The show's history says something encouraging about the state of regional theater. It has been performed from San Francisco to New England to North Carolina and back again, and no one has thought of taking it to New York. It has had a life of its own - more lives than a Carpathian count, in fact.
Johnson was the co-author of the piece, along with composer John Aschenbrenner, a decade ago for the Berkeley Rep. The leading role was played by Joe Spano, then a regular performer with several Bay Area companies.
The production was so successful that no one in the original cast wanted to let go of it. The company members took scripts in their baggage when they scattered to other theaters, and one or another of them directed productions in Los Angeles; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Williamstown, Mass.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and elsewhere. Every time the show was performed, Johnson rewrote and improved it. Finally, Gregory Boyd, the original Dr. Van Helsing, who had since become artistic director of PlayMakers correct form? Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., decided to stage the show this year, assembling as many of the original cast as were available while inviting Johnson to direct.
One of the available cast members was Joe Spano, who by now had gained acclaim and an Emmy nomination for his many seasons as Detective Henry Goldblume on ''Hill Street Blues.'' Spano first got Hollywood's attention when ''Welcome to Transylvania'' was produced in Los Angeles, so he was delighted to use his summer vacation from the series to pay homage to the vehicle that gave him his break.
The staging in North Carolina was popular with all concerned, and two San Francisco producers brought the entire production back to its native environs, where it will be running until at least July 15.
Johnson's conceit was to place ''Dracula'' in the confines of an English music hall. This isn't a spoof, mind you. Instead, it is what might have happened if turn-of-the-century music hall performers had attempted to put on ''Dracula'' using the only skills they knew: baggy-pants comedy, singing and hoofing, creaking one-liners, and ludicrous stock characterizations. This is Stoker's horror story filtered through vaudevillian sensibilities.
''Welcome to Transylvania'' works because Johnson and Aschenbrenner are really good at writing music-hall material - a lot of their stuff, out of its ironic context, would fit into a standard vaudeville routine. Aschenbrenner's music swings between quite creditable chorus-line numbers and lilting light opera, and Johnson's lyrics are amiably idiotic, in operetta fashion. Johnson excels at writing new age-old gags. (Master of Ceremonies, leering at chorus girl: ''You drive me to madness!'' She, sneering back: ''Drive you? You could walk it yourself!'') The old melodrama stereotypes - the ladies' man, the Victorian maiden, the absent-minded fuddy-duddy, the mad scientist spouting fractured English in a German accent - are lovingly sent up.
The show is played almost entirely for laughs, with a gag-spewing master of ceremonies and three jaded chorus girls, mocking ''Dracula'' even as they introduce its scenes, stepping in and out of the action. The play within the music-hall frame is uproariously butchered. And yet the Dracula story is intact. This is an utterly askew version, but in a certain ridiculous way it takes the myth seriously.
As Chauncey De Ville, the unsettling emcee who metamorphoses into the sanguinary count, Spano must hold the show together, and he is up to the task. This is no case of a media celebrity contributing a name and little else to a stage production; Spano is a legitimate-theater actor who happens to be working in Hollywood. The part of Chauncey doesn't call for great subtlety or emotive depth, but it does require a wide repertory of basic stage skills, and Spano has them all.
Elsewhere, there isn't a weak performance in the cast. Standouts include: Patti Cohenour as the doomed Lucy Westenra (whose trilling paean to ''Vanity'' is the musical showstopper), John Tyson as the unhinged Jonathan Harker, Katherine Meisle as his true-blue betrothed, Gregory Boyd as a Groucho Marx-like Van Helsing, and Lorri Holt as the most hard-boiled of the chorus girls.
The production support is equally strong. Aschenbrenner himself leads a versatile three-piece ensemble, featuring sometimes fiery violin by Paul Brancato. Costume designer Bobbi Owen has achieved the right off-kilter-cliche feel, and Nancy Thun's set, featuring an exquisitely execrable proscenium arch for the decaying music hall, is a delight. The footlight quality of Robert Jared's lighting is appropriate.
''Welcome to Transylvania'' is a rollicking good time, to be taken seriously only as a suitable example of how San Francisco has successfully made the stage its own.