Nothing too thrilling from `Jekyll & Hyde'

Review: The musical is entertaining, though not groundbreaking.

October 28, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Jekyll & Hyde" is a musical about extremes -- specifically, the extremes of good and evil. Yet oddly, the show itself is lodged firmly in middle ground.

Neither a masterpiece nor a disaster, it is entertaining without being challenging -- a show about risks that takes few itself.

Although the Broadway touring production at the Mechanic Theatre improves on the pre-Broadway version that played here in 1996, "Jekyll & Hyde" remains a melodramatic pop opera with a score -- by composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, who also wrote the book -- that is so irrepressibly catchy and pliably generic, it's no wonder its best known song, "This is the Moment," has become a staple at everything from sporting events to beauty pageants.

Visually, the production, which gained a new director and designers on Broadway, is far more interesting than its 1996 predecessor, whose staging was more reminiscent of a rock concert than a stage play. (The program describes both the touring production's direction, by David Warren, and set, by James Noone, as "based on" the Broadway work of Robin Phillips.)

The backdrops featuring large black-and-white pictures of, for example, a cathedral or a train station, create some stunning images. The most effective occurs when Hyde's huge shadow looms over his next victim while the latter stands waiting for a train on which to flee London.

Bricusse's book adds several elements to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic horror novella, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Chief among these are a revenge subplot in which Hyde preys on members of the hospital board of governors who denied Jekyll's request for a human guinea pig, as well as subplots concerning two romantic heroines -- Jekyll's fiancee, Emma (called "Lisa" in 1996), and Lucy, a prostitute.

As Lucy, Sharon Brown delivers the show's most spirited and moving performance, whether singing the lively "Bring on the Men," with an ensemble of chorus girls in male drag at the dive where she is the star attraction, or her hopeful solo, "Someone Like You," after being treated with kindness and respect by gentlemanly Jekyll. Her duet with Hyde, "Dangerous Game," is one of the evening's only scary moments -- all the more because it also has an undercurrent of sensuality. (In the less colorful role of Emma, Andrea Rivette delivers an adequate performance, although her upper register has a tendency to sound shrill.)

Chuck Wagner, the smooth-voiced baritone who plays the title roles, has a long history with the show, dating to its beginnings in the early 1980s, when he and Wildhorn were students at the University of Southern California. A large man, Wagner might be expected to project considerable menace as Hyde. Instead, he appears almost comfortable in the role.

Granted, Jekyll and Hyde are conceived to be performed largely by the actor's hair. Jekyll wears his long black locks in a neat ponytail. When he is transformed into evil Hyde, his hair is unleashed in an unruly mass. In Wagner's penultimate number, "Confrontation," a duet between Jekyll and Hyde, he sings each part in profile, with half of his hair pulled back and the other half worn loose (with alternating white and red lighting). The staging is so campy, the number seems like a self-made "Forbidden Broadway" parody.

For that matter, while a good deal of the direction is more theatrical than the pre-Broadway staging, too many numbers end up with the singer belting out the final verses front and center on a bare stage -- a sure-fire way to milk applause, but one guaranteed to detract from the plot.

Wildhorn and his creative team deserve credit for continuing to work on this show, even after its Broadway opening. But "Jekyll & Hyde" remains a middlebrow musical -- relatively enjoyable and inoffensive, breaking no new ground but desecrating no old ground. Even at Halloween, this is a story about a monster that neithers thrills nor terrifies.

`Jekyll & Hyde'

Where: Mechanic Theatre

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $21.50-$66.50

Call: 410-752-1200

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