Generally speaking, there are three types of vampire stories. You have the Anne Rice Interview with a Vampire historic/gothic narrative dripping with sexual innuendo, sinister possibility, and male-dominated storylines. Then there’s the Twilight approach, the romanticizing of the vampire as a troubled brooder. In these versions, women play a starring role, but it’s that of the sweet innocent love interest who’s sole purpose is to express to audiences how desirable this doomed love is bound to be. Finally, you have the Buffy method. A self-aware/self-deprecating take on the whole Vampire genre replete with eccentrically whacky characters and stacked to the brim with strong, kick-ass females.
Looking at the female-dominated creative team behind the new vampire musical, Pulsate, (book, music, and lyrics by Faith Fossett; directed by Rachael Logue; Movement and Choreography by Kristen Warren) it’s not a surprise that it was the Buffy option that was picked. And we’re thankful it was. A quirky musical about the undead where women aren’t the victims, but the heroes and the villains alike? We’re down for that kind of fun.
On top of that, how about setting it in the sultry chic theater at Prohibition where the venue’s cabaret-style seating puts us right up close and occasionally in the middle of the action? I mean, really, what’s not to love, right?
Well, actually not so right. Despite the take the piss Vampire humor, the girl power, the cool as all get-up location, Pulsate fails to get our blood pumping.
The story, while not altogether original, is fine enough. The setting is Club Angelina, a gathering spot for woke Vampires who’ve sworn off hunting for sustenance and instead rely on blood bank supplies to quench their hunger.
The club's run by coven leader Shelby (Donna Bella Litton clad in a black leather bondage-style outfit) who, along with her fellow vampires Vlad and Providence ((Abraham Zeus Zapata and Arianna Bermudez in black jeans and tops), have also opened the club up to other types. There’s the feather and sequin-clad witch The Singer (Jordi Viscarri Velásquez), Werewolf Sleet (Jaime Peña, showing no signs of wolf in his casual wear) and the hired human, Erik (Danté Anderson in an obnoxious Day-Glo tie-dye T-shirt), to work at the club.
It’s all relatively cross-creature kumbaya until an older, more powerful vampire, Detroit (Brad Goertz, looking like a lounge singer), shows up attempting to quash his kind’s new humane streak. Hunting is a crucial part of who vampires are he claims and he’s willing to kill everyone Shelby loves to prove his point, that is unless she’ll “link” with him and be forever his mate.
Of the 12 numbers in the two-hour, two-act show, most are given fairly forgettable electro-pop treatment, heavy on synth, light on melody and muddled on lyrics. Severe sound issues that caused mikes to crackle and pop on and off all evening certainly didn’t help matters. But even when the tech wasn’t a problem, there were many other writing and directorial issues that made it almost impossible to discern lyrics or full meaning from the songs.
Fossett seemed to vacillate between cramming as many words as possible into a bar of music and simply repeating the same lyrics over and over again, neither option capturing our interest. Then there was her giddy use of expletives in her numbers. Look, there’s absolutely no issue with swearing in song. But, for example, in the number “Power, Sex & Magic”, lyrics like, “Welcome to our day…this is it…we’re gonna fuck up some shit” felt more like a kid having fun with “naughty words” then the clever use of cursing to create impact.
Enunciation while singing is one of the hardest things to get right in a musical and sadly, Director Logue couldn’t get her cast to overcome the loud music to help us hear what they had to say much of the time.
Two of what could possibly have been the show’s stronger songs were rendered moot thanks to the inclusion of The Aerialist (Edward Vivas), an actual aerialist who took to a trapeze or hanging ribbons to twist, spin and twirl athletically during the numbers. So gorgeous is his performance that no attention could be paid to the actual songs being sung or what they were supposed to be telling us.
Instead, we thought about the incredible muscle control this young man must have and then wonder why in the hell they decided to include him in the show in the first place. Sure, you don’t often get to cast aerialists and it’s cool and all, but if the result is that it takes away from your actual show, maybe it’s better left for another time.
This leaves us with just two truly winning numbers, ironically both love songs of sorts and both eschewing the show’s majority electro-pop beats for a more traditional ballad style delivery. As a confession of love from human to vampire, "I Want To Be," gave us all the feels with its emotionally honest lyrics and heart forward music. Calculate is a song about the struggle to hold onto love. Not as pretty or musically soaring, the number finds our heartstrings with its more strident beat and grasping lyrics.
Matching the forgettability of much of the music was the lackluster choreography. The Prohibition space has a stage, floor space, a dramatic staircase and a catwalk. Not to mention the audience sitting right there in the middle of the action. Why Warren chose to keep her dancers so tame and so removed from the overall space, is a mystery.
Twelve numbers in two hours means that for a musical, Pulsate has a lot of acting going on. I’ll be honest, much of the comedy in this show is of the over the top/physical kind – so not my cup of tea. But taste aside, it’s done fairly well. As Lilith, a young human who applies for a job at the club, Mai Le shows us once again that she can handle playing unhinged (including a Madonna Like a Virgin number that is so intentionally bad I suppose you could see it as quite wonderful) and that when it comes to endless screaming, she’s a pro.
Logue has a harder time steering her actors in the more serious moments. Dialogue feels blurted, scene flow is patchy, tension is missing and chemistry is nonexistent. It all feels a little not ready for prime time.
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Shame that, as with all vampire tales, Pulsate actually has a larger concern than simply the supernatural, in this case, the creep towards inhumanity we find ourselves in thanks to a nefarious person trying to take charge. “Listen to the pulse of the people,” one of the final songs tells us. Look to see who actually has the fangs and the teeth and what that means for all of us. It's a message that's all too easy to miss in this musical.
And yet still, with this kind of show – one that encourages audience members to cosplay, where you can have cocktails and sweet potato fries as you watch bitchy witches and vampy vampires fight it out, it might not matter if the thing is a polished gem or if the messages are clear. People who simply want to have fun at this show will have fun.
The rest of us will leave wishing it could have been more.
Pulsate continues through November 21 at Prohibition Theatre 1008 Prairie. For information, visit pulsatemusical.com. $10 - $45.