The first five minutes of the Woodlawn’s new vampire musical The Cure are pretty much a disaster: a blood-sucking scene sunk by egregious overacting, off-tune singing, clumsy staging, and unhelpful costumes (are those medieval robes? are those contemporary shoes? what time period is this?). Resigned, I settled in for what promised to be a long — even sucky — evening at the Woodlawn.
But then the unexpected happened: a change of scenery ushered in a change of actors, and a talented bloke named Matthew Lieber took the stage. In the rockin’ number “Another Night,” Lieber deftly introduced the audience to the seedy nightlife of a city that never sleeps. (We soon learn that some inhabitants literally never sleep.) This number segued into the even better anthem “A Hundred to One,” an energetic ode to despondence.
And suddenly the evening seemed not so bad. Lieber, you see, plays Gray Sullivan, a journalist who finds himself grappling with an aggressive cancer that offers little chance of — and this is not the last time in the evening you’ll hear this phrase — a cure. (The exact location of this cancer is left unspecified, but it’s hard to imagine a rhyme for, say, “colo-rectal.”) Gray is rescued from his misery by swishy BFF Alex (well played, sung, and swished by Ben Carlee), an ostracized gay guy in town for a funeral. Together, the two amigos heed the invitation of a Mysterious Letter that beckons them to a nearby church and its spooky convocation of S&M-clad partiers. Could this be the evening in which Gray discovers The Cure?
I’ll never tell, but it’s not because I don’t want to; it’s because I still don’t understand the ending. (Clarity is not a primary virtue of this evening’s entertainment.) But between the first five minutes and the last five minutes, there are two hours of occasionally engaging material. New York composer, lyricist, and author Mark Weiser clearly knows how to write a song, and individual scenes have spark: a love duet between Alex and the mysterious Sasha (Mars Wright) — who’s both gay and vampiric — is catchy and touching at once. A second act sextet of emoting protagonists puts the opera in “rock opera,” and some of the score exudes a Frank Wildhorn-esque vibe. Think Jekyll and Hyde — only with more bite.
The problem with The Cure is that all the songs are basically of the same sort: American Idol-esque ballads or hard-rocking anthems. It becomes wearisome. The genius of Rent — clearly an inspiration for The Cure — derives at least in part from that musical’s tonal variety: sure, it rocks, but it also tangos, waltzes, and even tumbles into fugues. To make matters worse, the Woodlawn’s sound system amplifies The Cure’s small band to the same volume for every song; tunes come at you faster or slower, but never softer. And since much of the The Cure is a chamber piece of lost individuals groping their way through an inner darkness it never lands with the power that it should. A fortissimo is only as effective as the quiet that surrounds it.
As the uniquely named vampiress Unique, Ashtyn Sonner has some stage presence, though she’s not, alas, a natural chanteuse; neither Kurt Wehner, as a vegan vampire, nor Brian Carmark, as his fed-up but rarely fed nemesis, are up to the demands of their roles. The chorus, an enthusiastic but inexperienced group of goths, sorely lacks a choreographer: members basically spend the evening caressing each other in various pansexual poses (with, it must be said, enviable ease — just think of the cast party!). Director Jonathan Pennington maneuvers the ensemble around the stage, but rarely thinks in stage pictures or levels. Wehner’s architectural set owes more to Victor Hugo than to Bram Stoker, but features a spiffy rotating centerpiece. The flying special effects are actually kind of fun: it’s like watching the longed-for undead version of Peter Pan.
For all that the Woodlawn trumpets its professionalism, and even invites comparisons to Broadway (!), this is a scrappy production, powered by what may be most charitably described as “heart.” Judging from the program, many of the performers are recent graduates from high school and college, and I suspect that’s the ideal audience as well: young folks who want a hip, pop-rock musical into which to sink their fangs (and 22 bucks). •
7:30pm Fridays, 7:30pm Saturdays, 3pm Sundays
Through Mar 13