Dracula's Grandmother,A Musical Fable, Book, lyrics and music by Jay Kerr. Directed by Jay Kerr. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"God sends us men when we need them."
In 1897 British actress Dame Ellen Terry was fifty years old. She had been a star on the English stage and in America for over thirty years. She had been the leading actress in comedy and in Shakespeare and had served Sir Henry Irving as his leading lady for more than two decades. It was also the year that Bram Stoker joined the craze for vampires by publishing his new novel "Dracula, the Undead" and producing a one performance play version of the book in an effort to secure the copyright for his characters and story on the British stage.
According to the official entry in the British Library: "The performance itself, held on the morning of 18 May, 1897 at the Lyceum Theatre, London, consisted of a dramatic reading carried out by members of the Lyceum's resident company of actors...As was usual for copyright readings playbills advertising the performance were only put up outside the theatre a mere half hour prior to the time the play was due to commence. Unsurprisingly...paying customers were thin on the ground with only two people buying tickets to sit in attencance... The play contains prologue and five acts, containing over forty scenes in total, and would probably have taken a numbing six hours to read. Of those taking the roles in the play the most famaous was Edith Craig (daughter of Ellen Terry) who took the role of Mina Murray...To Stoker's disappointment the actor Henry Irving took no part in the production...widely considered to be one of Stoker's inspirations for the Count, due to his dark, brooding charisma...legend has it that when Stoker asked Irving what he thought of the play the great actor replied with a single word - "dreadful."
Playwright/Producer Jay Kerr has gone a different way with his semi-historical musical version of the events. In his play, "Dracula's Grandmother" now being performed at the Fort Salem Theater in Salem, NY, Irving has taken two roles in the play, Dracula and his pursuer Van Helsing. Ellen Terry has pursued the role of Lucy, then of Mina and has finally agreed to a smaller role, one of her own invention it would seem, Dracula's Grandmother. It is a very funny concept and the actors and creator have given it all they've got.
Gail Garrison plays Ellen Terry. David Braucher plays Irving, Dracula and Van Helsing, Johnny Martinez is Bram Stoker, Rosie Spring plays Florence Balcombe Stoker who plays Mina, Jared Alexander Barton plays Jonathan Harker. These five actors are the core of the show although everyone in the company gets equal time and as much to do. But the story is centered upon this group of players.
The entire company is dressed in modern clothing, all black. No one speaks with an English accent although David Braucher speaks in many, few of them intelligible. The concept would seem to be a first rehearsal for the one performance and no one is as involved as they should be considering the time involved. The actress playing Lucy has just had a child and she keeps leaving the theater, for example. The many confusions in this script are centered on who is speaking or singing at any given moment, the actor or the character he/she is playing in the play. Some scenes are with script in hand, others are not. While the idea for all of this wonderful, the execution is a bit helter-skelter.
Kerr's strength lies in his music. This is a most tuneful show. Twenty-three original songs fill out the two hours and fifteen minutes of the show and some of them are really glorious contributions to the form, including "Sometimes" and "Friends," "The Bloofer Lady," No Time/Not Easy to Believe," and "Back Together Now." Ellen Terry's number "I'm Not Done" is a perfect set-up piece for this musical play within a play and her final song "Run" is a hysterical number that sets up an ending that is truly unexpected.
Garrison is a great deal of fun in the role of Ellen Terry. You watch the talent of that lady emerge as she improvises her own role and as Garrison plays it straight it just gets funnier. Jared Barton and Rosie Spring turn Harker and Mina into a veritable Romeo and Juliet as they come together, part and come together again, as the song says. He is a charmer on the stage and Spring is a delight.
Martinez is an earnest Bram Stoker, intent on every moment being just right as Stoker must, himself, have been in this situation. Sara Curtis has a lovely voice and personality and she makes the most of her slightly limited role; her early exit leaves a rehearsal wonderfully under-complemented and while her Lucy is missed, so is Curtis herself.
Thomas Swimm is a fine Dr. Seward singing wonderfully. Chris Martens plays Arthur Holmwood, Lucy's fiance, with a deliciously dazed expression and an amazingly strong singing voice (sometimes off pitch but it didn't really matter for his harmonies were excellent).
All in all the production, in a very limited run, is one of the more unique entries in a season of new plays and musicals all over the region. It is also one of the most lyrical and singable shows and if you can find your way up Route 22 to Salem, New York next weekend it wouldn't be in error, it wouldn't be in a vampiric trance. It would be worthwhile and certainly a few hours of unanticipated fun.
Gail Garrison as Ellen Terry; photo: Jay Kerr
Jared Alexander Barton and Rosie Spring; photo: Jay Kerr
Johnny Martinez, Chris Martens, Thomas Swimm; photo: Jay Kerr
Dracula's Grandmother plays through August 16 at the Fort Salem Theater, 11 East Broadway, Salem, NY. For information and tickets go on line to their website: www.fortsalemtheater.com.