The Ellsworth American

Thursday, July 3 2003

Spotlight on the Arts

Dracula Decends on Stonington

By Max Brooks

Kevin Gray has been working in theater for most of his life. But he also knows a thing or two about vanquishing vampires.

How do you kill a vampire?

“A stake through the heart,” he said, in tones of authority. “Then you have to decapitate them.”

Gray’s interest in the undead has culminated in “Dracula: The Covenant,” a musical he has created with his wife, Dodie Pettit.

The production, complete with seven Actor’s Equity performers from New York City, is coming to the Stonington Opera House for its world premiere July 11, 12 and 13. Shows will start at 7 p.m.

Gray and Pettit’s careers first brought them together under the lights of Broadway in the musical “ Phantom of the Opera.” Gray played the Phantom opposite Pettit’s Christine, the musical’s female romantic lead.

In “Dracula: the Covenant,” they are collaborating more intimately than ever before in the process of creation. Gray wrote the play’s script and Pettit composed the music. They co-wrote the songs’ lyrics.

Gray will play Dracula.

The musical is based on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” a gothic novel published in 1897. The Pettit and Gray adaptation follows a traditional telling of the story.

The lot begins when a young lawyer delivers papers to Dracula-the deed to his home in London.

Dracula, a vampire who feeds on the blood of the living, leaves Transylvania for London in hopes that a change of scenery will do him good.

It isn’t long before he discovers that the lawyer who delivered his papers is married to an English girl he once loved.

He wants blood-her blood- and from there the drama ensues. Led by Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula’s archenemy, the play’s characters band together to end the vampire’s reign of terror.

For director Carol Estey, one of the four women who refurbished and reopened the Stonington Opera House three years ago, the story’s focus is the same as that of is venue: community.

“The idea that these people are trying to finish Dracula off together is kind of romantic,” Estey said.

“One of my goals was to tie the characters together,” said playwright Gray. “They band together as a team, as a family.”

In Gray’s mind, that fits in nicely with the Stonington Opera House’s credo, “Incite Art, Create Community.”

Estey and Gray said the play’s romantic mood is set by Pettit’s compositions The music stems from the classical tradition of Eastern Europe, particularly that of the Russian composers.

The production’s biggest mystery is how “Dracula: The Covenant” landed in Stonington on its way from Transylvania to Broadway.

That story begins with the Princeton, NJ, childhoods of director Estey and composer Pettit. Estey’s mother Audrey Estey, ran a ballet school that became the Princeton Regional Ballet company in 1962. Both Pettit and Estey were involved in it as children.

Estey spent her summers on Deer Isle, where her mother ran Les Chalets Francaises, an arts camp known locally as The French Camp.

Maine left a profound impression on Estey, but her career in professional drama began in and around New York City, not Stonington.

It was in this career that she crossed paths and became friendly with Gray, who had grown up in a actor’s community in Westport, Conn. Gray met Pettit later and they realized they both had the Esteys in their lives.

“It’s kind of like six degrees of separation, but with Kevin Gray instead of Kevin Bacon,” Gray said.

When Estey later fulfilled a life-long dream in helping to revive the Stonington Opera House, it only made sense that Pettit and Gray, now married, would get involved.

Last year, Pettit and Gray came to Stonington to perform songs from the then still in progress “Dracula” project at the opera house’s annual gala benefit.

“The response was so tremendous that it spurred us on to get it out there,” Gray said.

Estey and Judith Jerome, her fellow Opera House artistic director, traveled to Westport, Conn., earlier this year to hear a reading form the developing musical.

They like what they heard. Pettit and Gray said they wanted to put the show on in Stonington.

“Well, I sure would like to direct it,” Estey recalls saying.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to get professional friends up to these beautiful surroundings to work,” she said.

Pettit and Gray said they and the other actors are looking forward to the experience as well. Gray said.

Not that ‘Dracula: the Covenant” is an easy-going fairy tale itself. Playgoers can expect to see bloodsucking stakes through the heart and decapitation, all in a musical that, according to Gray, touches on themes as universal as “life and death” and “heaven and earth.”

“Dracula: The Covenant” will play every night at 7 from Friday, July 11, through Sunday, July 13. Friday’s performance features an Opening Night Gala and a post show discussion with the artists.