AISLE SAY Cincinnati


Book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse/Music by Frank Wildhorn
Directed by David Warren
Starring Chuck Wagner and Sharon Brown
Aronoff Center: Procter & Gamble Hall
Through December 19, 1999
650 Walnut Street, Cincinnati / (513) 241-7469

Reviewed by Laura C. Kelley

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Good and evil. An upstanding citizen whose only flaw seems to be dedication to his work; the unbridled, passionate, murderous self released through experimental injections. The basic duality from Robert Louis Stevenson's nineteenth-century novella is alive but struggling in the PACE and Fox touring production of "Jekyll & Hyde". It is wounded by the musical's silly stage effects and relentless score of interchangeable pop songs. Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn's show may hold cult status on Broadway, where it's been running for two and a half years. But at Procter & Gamble Hall in Cincinnati's Aronoff Center, I couldn't see or hear the reason why.

The show has a promisingly chilly start, with Dr. Jekyll (Chuck Wagner) agonizing over his father's madness and vowing to the death to separate a tortured soul from a good man. Beverly Emmons's lighting, which consistently provides the most ominous element of the production, floods a sterile white pool onto the darkened stage. Soon, the chipper accompaniment and quick pace of the music overcome the gloom. We are whisked through the hospital board's rejection of the doctor's proposal to extract the evil in a person through a chemical, and his engagement to the daughter of one of the hospital's governors. The transformations of Jekyll into Hyde hold little more fright or thrill than seeing someone inject himself in the arm with a large hypodermic needle. Hyde's serial murders become stage gimmicks, with an exaggerated squishing sound of a stabbing and an amplified crunching noise of a breaking neck. Danger is dispelled by audience giggles.

The theatrical potential of transforming from an honorable citizen to an uninhibited animal is great. No single person takes the blame for its ineffective realization of this dramatic moment in "Jekyll & Hyde". One could start with director David Warren (whose work is based on Robin Phillips' original Broadway production), since the various musical, acting, and technical elements don't fit together to work with the text. Then again, his starting material was weak. Wildhorn's music for Jekyll's decision to experiment on himself is downright perky. "This Is the Moment" sounds like a sunny Barry Manilow tune, inappropriate for embarking on a life-threatening risk. Wagner sings this bright piece in near darkness, on a street. Then a wall flips up, blinding the audience with a row of harsh lights as it swings into place the gold-framed mirror on the opposite side. That position happens to show conductor Steven "Cosmo" Mallardi hard at work in the pit. Jekyll's lab sparkles with colored liquids in glass flasks and yellow flames flickering from burners on a steel-like table. Wagner rips off his black tailcoat, and his white shirt and vest spark further glare. After obvious gestures of preparing the bright pink serum and injecting it in his forearm, Wagner takes notes on its effects. Then he convulses with bent knees and twisted feet, loosens his hair from its tidy ponytail to shake out a wavy mane, and rolls on the floor as Edward Hyde. He looks like a cross between a heavy metal rocker and Disney's Beast. Wagner's clenched voice opens into a deeper growl. The unimpressive spectacle of Jekyll's transformation is blinding, distracting, and disappointing.

The evening's most engaging scenes feature Sharon Brown as Lucy. In "Bring on the Men", she leads an ensemble of prostitutes in a gritty, sultry number worthy of "Cabaret" or Kurt Weill. Costume designer Ann Curtis has dressed Brown in a red and black bustiere, fishnet stockings, black spike boots, and red ruffle. Although the cockney accent seems out of place (barely any British inflection is heard throughout the show), Brown's confident voice reflects her character's edge. In the second act, "In His Eyes" pairs Brown with Andrea Rivette as Jekyll's fiancee, Emma. They are musical equals in tone and power, while their characters, both in love with Jekyll, are from opposite sides of the tracks. Here is a true reflection of duality and unity.

James Noone's scenic design, based on Phillips' Broadway work, effectively whisks the cast and the audience throughout 1885 London. Elements of interiors glide smoothly away while drops with sketches of a city street or wharf lower upstage. Against the backdrop, actors move in striking silhouettes, including dancers or figures with hats and umbrellas. During some transitions, black curtains create a sort of cut and blackout effect while suggesting movement as they close from the sides and above. These scene changes, which sometimes occur during numbers, set a cinematic pace. The show clips along, at times too quickly to digest the words and events; there is barely a pause for dialogue between numbers.

Even though the show doesn't need to be any longer, there are a few missing plot points that would strengthen the story. We don't see much of Emma other than at her engagement party, where she asserts her independence, and then when she complains that she doesn't see him any more. So why on earth does she go through with the wedding? And poor Lucy. Even after being warned by a letter from Hyde, hand-delivered by his friend who knows the truth but doesn't tell, she sings a dreamy ballad ("A New Life") and then curls up in bed. She's decided to stay. As with Jekyll's transformation song, the shift in mood between warning and action is jarring.

Sometime I'd like to see a chilling, compelling staging of Stevenson's tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Bricusse and Wildhorn's musical demonstrates the cheesy humor of B-movies and emptiness of banal pop music rather than the gripping power of live theatre.

P.S. Add one more gadget to the list of electronic devices inappropriate for use in the performance hall: laser pointers. Leave the little red lights at home instead of shining them onto the stage.

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