AISLE SAY Washington/Baltimore


Book and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Directed by David Warren
at the Morris Mechanic Theatre
Baltimore, MD / (410) 752-1200

Review by Richard Gist

It should be pointed out at the outset that, for one reason or another, this is the sixth sighting of the "Jekyll & Hyde" phenomenon by this reviewer, dating back to a cold winter's night nearly three years ago when I witnessed the pre-Broadway tour version in the appropriately gothic Hershey Theatre in Pennsylvania. Subsequently, I saw the show in this same Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore where the show ended its seven-year pre-New York peregrination around the country. In the several incarnations of this heavily debated musical, one observation can be made with assurity -- and to borrow from a line in the show, "the only thing constant is change."

The show has become a sort of tinkerer's delight, and I must confess to having been caught up in the progression of alterations, albeit not nearly to the degree as the so-called "Jekkies" (the show's legion of fanatics as they were dubbed around the time of the Broadway opening). I will try to resist the temptation of comparing this version with the others, in deference to those readers for whom this will be the first-time visit to Dr. Jekyll's laboratory.

This touring version, directed by David Warren and based on Robin Phillips' Broadway original, has Chuck Wagner as its star, and Mr. Wagner's association with the leading role(s) reach way back to the musical's first workshop productions at USC 20 years ago, and the show's decade-later debut at Houston's Alley Theatre back in 1990. Later, Jekyll & Hyde became a great showcase for Frank Wildhorn's accessible pop-opera showtunes (lyrics by Leslie Bricusse), and for the skyrocketing careers of Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder. Now that Mr. Wagner is back in the central role, and with a couple of the songs that were dropped from the show back in, it is interesting to contemplate the full circle nature of the exercise.

The musical is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic–with enough melodrama, violence and sex thrown in to make it palatable for modern audiences. This production is rather loosely based on the Broadway version, yet there are enough differences beyond the expected set changes for a touring version to give the show its own look and feel.

Mr. Wagner in the title role is powerful, though there are moments in his performance when the viscera seem to relax a bit, and we await his next opportunity to captivate. His good Jekyll is played with just the right charm and swagger, though his Hyde is somewhat less convincing. In the show's now almost signature number (if not a parodic summation), "Confrontation," when both of these opposite personalities collide, Wagner demonstrates his considerable singing and acting skills.

As Lucy, the Linda Eder role, Sharon Brown combines the coy sexuality of her prostitute character with a kind of waif-like vulnerability that generally works. Ms. Brown's singing of the show's greatest numbers is somewhat uneven, however, though she truly nailed the downstage "Someone Like You" anthem late in the first act, to rousing audience appreciation. Her Act Two "Dangerous Game" duet with Wagner, however, lacks movement and thereby most of its menace.

In the supporting roles of Emma Carew and John Utterson, Andrea Rivette and James Clow both turn in crisp performances with their particularly strong singing voices that do decent justice to the half dozen numbers they are called upon to render. Dennis Kelly is an avuncular, creditable Sir Danvers.

James Noone has taken the Broadway settings and toned them down to what is predominantly a series of black and white backdrops that merely suggest the London environs of the horror tale. Gone and long forgotten is the massive scaffold from the pre-Broadway production, though stage height is achieved with a pair of wrought iron staircases that slide in and out of the scene progression. Beverly Emmons' precise lighting design is, in a word, magnificent–depite a couple of miscues in the early going of the opening night performance.

Now that the theatre world has begun to acknowledge that Jekyll & Hyde is a legitimate hit, despite some obvious flaws in the storyline–not the least of which is a criminally gratuitous ending -- many of its long-time believers and the heretofore uninitiated will approach this musical for what I think is its true worth–a middlebrow near-parody of a thriller with enough pop content to entertain substantially. So if this production is a tad lacking in electricity, Frank Wildhorn's talent for writing the kind of songs people like to hear is always there to save the evening.

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