Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a 19th century thriller novella by Robert Louis Stevenson about one man’s obsession with the violent conflicts between good and evil aspects within the same man .
That man is not Frank Wildhorn, though it could be. Wildhorn and his faithful English companion Leslie Bricusse have been laboring in the laboratory for a couple of decades, trying to capture a musical theatre version of Stevenson’s tale.
As has been the pattern in the past, a long period of peaceful silence has been burst by a new eruption, this one at the Civic Theatre, where the new Jekyll & Hyde opened a pre-Broadway run this week, presented by the Nederlander Organization’s Broadway San Diego. It’s the fourth or fifth try at the same material by this same team.
Wildhorn being well-known as the King Of Klimax – see The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dracula, Bonnie & Clyde, etc. – this show is amply supplied with one boffola after another, French horn soaring nobly over sobbing strings and desperate drums in Kim Scharnberg’s excellent arrangements. Really, two or three of these thundering finishes are enough for any show, but here we get nearly a dozen.
Some are rather well done, too, in Jeff Calhoun’s spare but urgent staging. A batch of swells introduce themselves, in “Board of Governors,” as their servants primp them before a row of dressing mirrors. The floor show at a brothel is a raunchy debauch on a spider theme titled “Bring on the Men.” The ultimate showdown between the good Dr. J. and the evil Mr. H., a screw-tightening pressure-cooker called “Confrontation,” has interesting if ear-splitting musical ideas. And there are plenty of rafter-rocking duets to underline plot points.
There are 20 actors up there, some of them quite interesting and all of them effective, but what gives the show its most panache is the decor, by Tobin Ost. Those dressing mirrors are tall panels that revolve and scoot about as needed. The border inside the proscenium resembles antique stained-glass until it starts to bubble as part of Jekyll’s steam–punky chemistry set. The costumes are rich but somber and sumptuously detailed. Daniel Brodie’s luscious projections and Jeff Croiter’s aggressive but sensitive lighting design integrate seamlessly.
So the look and the sound of the show are hard to fault. What then makes it so difficult to sit through?
Well, all those climaxes do start to wear, even in a story this packed with dark Victorian struggles between outward propriety and inner savagery. Stevenson’s story, proven effective through 126 years of stage, screen, radio, television and literary variations, is a sturdy one but Wildhorn, Bricusse and Steve Cuden (an early adaptation collaborator still represented by some lyrics) have tinkered and diddled it into a complicated mess. The added characters bring little of real interest – there are two separate love interests for this unfortunate experimenter; Stevenson hadn’t a single important female character – and the metaphorical agonies of addictive power and knowledge are lost in romance and melodrama, not to mention the next climax.
Constantine Maroulis is intense and tireless as the hero(es), always game for the next belting demands. But what’s with that ponytail!? In the first scene, when he’s appealing for permission to start experiments on a human subject, the hairdo looks like a pet ferret parked on his shoulder. No permission from proper Victorian for this weirdo!
Teal Wicks is a pure soprano singing blonde as the proper fiancé and Deborah Cox is the more interesting bad-girl brunette. Two excellent voices in different styles though the roles haven’t the heft of something by R. L. Stevenson.
So, perhaps one comes away from Jekyll & Hyde pondering the instructive spectacle of a man struggling to reconcile the forces that drive him. And maybe thinking a bit also about that famous 1885 novella by R. L. Stevenson.