Published in Gay and Lesbian Times September 19, 2002
Just as the infamous Dr. Henry Jekyll tried repeatedly to get his notorious experiment right, Frank Wildhorn seems to need to keep re-working his musicals until they’re in shape. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” went through many incarnations before it became a respectable show, and the same goes for “Jekyll and Hyde.” Although audiences flocked to New York in droves (devotees were called “Jekkies”), the musical was not well received by critics (just like the first “Pimpernel” and the quickly-closed “Civil War”).
Composer Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse began adapting the Robert Louis Stevenson classic in 1990, and kept revising the show until its Broadway opening in 1997. Focusing less on the fascinating moral/ethical dilemmas than on theatrical pyrotechnics, the musical got mixed reviews, though it ultimately snagged four Tony Award nominations. Since then, songs have been added and omitted, many times.
I saw the original cast of “Jekyll” before the production went to New York, and found it overly repetitive, over-acted and technically over-the-top. So I’m happy to report that the Starlight production provides a much more satisfying experience. It’s great to look at, very well sung, and the special effects don’t overwhelm the explosive story.
In Stevenson’s 1886 novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Henry Jekyll is a brilliant young research scientist. Convinced that he can separate the forces of good and evil, he devotes himself obsessively to devising a drug that will excise the evil from the human brain. When his experiment backfires, Jekyll inadvertently gives life to Edward Hyde, his murderous alter-ego, who unleashes a reign of terror in London society.
The book is a complex mix of psychological perception and ethical contemplation. The musical boils it all down to simplistic dualities: the compassion and perversion of the title characters, as well as their metaphorical father-son relationship (barely touched on, though potentially very interesting) and their disparate loves — separated by chasms of class, education, money and privilege. Emma is a cultivated beauty; Lucy is a whore (with the proverbial heart of gold, not to mention a brain, and aspirations for a better life). Then there’s the naked hypocrisy of all those pillars of the community who fail to support Henry’s research: the philandering Bishop, the cowardly General, the stingy philanthropist, etc. Bricusse’s book is shallow and facile, and there still is an enormous amount of droning repetition in Wildhorn’s score.
In the few instances where there are significant songs (“No One Knows Who I Am,” “This is the Moment,” “In His Eyes”), the actors come down stage center and belt them out as if each one is the show-stopper of the evening, with smiles and mugging often far removed from the meaning and message of the number. This approach (most of the songs are sung directly to the audience) wears thin mighty fast. In his staging, director Brian Wells has also liberally referenced other musicals (from “Cabaret” to “Sweeney Todd” to ” Pimpernel”) so that we keep getting that ‘haven’t I seen this?’ feeling, even though this is a regional premiere.
The singing is outstanding throughout, as are the musical accompaniment, the sets (borrowed from Fullerton Civic Light Opera) and Kathy Auckland’s costumes. Quite compelling as Emma, Melissa Walters has a glorious, crystal-clear voice. Annie Berthiaume is adorable as Lucy, but her indeterminate accent comes and goes, and her voice has a country twang that doesn’t suit her character. T. Eric Hart, who wowed audiences in Fullerton, does it again as a magnificent, gut-wrenching Jekyll/Hyde. Whether tortured or menacing, he’s consistently credible, and his final schizophrenic number, when he rapidly shifts between the two extreme characters, is breathtaking.
Nothing, as we should learn from this story, is all good or all bad: not the human psyche, not this show or production. But feel free to conduct your own experiment…
“Jekyll and Hyde ” continues through September 22 at Starlight Theatre in Balboa Park; 619-544-STAR (7827).
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.