Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2007
C-R Productions has mounted another rip-snorting musical at the Cohoes Music Hall, this time Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, a huge hunk of faux-Victorian balderdash if there ever was one, but in this fast-paced and engaging presentation directed by Jim Charles the foolishness is overshadowed by the entertainment value and a good time is had by all.
I am not a fan of the “gothic musical” a term first coined for Lloyd-Webber’s monumental Phantom of the Opera and since pretty much absconded with by Wildhorn who has cranked out a succession of faux-Victorian extravaganzas, starting with Jekyll and Hyde, continuing with The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dracula: The Musical, and Svengali, and finishing up with an audacious attempt to cram the entire American Civil War on to the stage in a show aptly titled The Civil War.
I use the term faux-Victorian and Gothic to describe these shows because they bear no resemblance to real life in that era, and, in the case of Jekyll and Hyde almost no resemblance to the source material. I had not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-1894) The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1886) but my son fortuitously left his school copy on the dashboard of my car and, knowing that I would be reviewing the show, I picked it up and read it. Two things immediately struck me: 1) the brevity of the work, it is a novella not a novel; and 2) the absence of the transformation scene.
I think I am fairly typical in saying that my ideas about the Jekyll and Hyde story had been largely informed by movies and cartoons. Hands up people who can vividly recall Bugs Bunny drinking a potion and morphing into a monster. That scene, in which the good guy turns into the bad guy right before our eyes is ripe for cinematic magic, and over the decades various state-of-the-art techniques have been used to create the illusion. The transformation has been made into the central element of the story, and the fact that it is not described in Stevenson’s novella except for a brief paragraph in the final chapter, which consists of Henry Jekyll’s posthumous letter to John Utterson, was astounding to me.
Stevenson’s work is in fact very, very Victorian in the true sense of the word. Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S., etc. , 50-ish and unmarried, has a healthy Victorian distain for his natural urges. The list of “evils” he struggles against goes beyond mere wine and women, although those loom large, to encompass just about every activity that is not selfless and work related. Jekyll has literally created a life that is all work and no play, and so it is no wonder that he secretly rages against people who are able to accept and indulge both sides of their personality. The word “cleave” is very applicable to what Jekyll eventually does because it means both to come apart and to come together.
“Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Stevenson describes Jekyll and Hyde as literally and physically two different men. They cannot wear the same clothes. Listen: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile…with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice.” Dr. Jekyll on the other hand is “...a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a stylish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness.” It is later stated that Hyde is considerably younger than Jekyll, as well as physically smaller, and Jekyll attributes this to the fact that he has continually stunted the growth of his evil self, so that it is naturally less well developed than the good.
I am spending this amount of time on Stevenson’s very moralistic vision of a man unable to accept his humanity, so that you can see the contrast to the very romantic and 20th century spin Wildhorn, Steve Cuden, who shares credit with Wildhorn for “conceiving” the story for the stage, and librettist and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, have put on it.
The show opens with Jekyll (Rob Richardson), his future father-in-law Sir Danvers Carew (Jim Middleton), and his friend and attorney John Utterson (Rob Dalton), (through whose eyes Stevenson tells the bulk of his novella,) standing by as Jekyll’s father lies dying in a spooky Dickensian hospital. Jekyll announces that he has almost perfected a drug that could have saved his father, and sings a passionate promise to his dying father that he will continue his work. Just how a drug that can separate the good and evil sides of a personality could prevent anyone’s death is not made clear. What this prologue scene does is establish a Noble Purpose for Jekyll’s work.
After the chorus gloomily informs us that we all keep up a façade in public (this is news?) we see Jekyll appear before a committee of VIP nobility-types (Middleton, Dalton, Shawn R. Morgan, Joan Faxon, Bill Hickman, Evan Shyer, Edmund Metzold, and Michael Hayes) to plead for permission to try his new drug on a human subject – he suggests using a disposable mental patient or two – and the committee, wisely, turns him down. Everyone then adjourns to Jekyll’s engagement party to the virginal and blonde Emma Carew (Tiffany Borelli.) Still smarting over the thwarting of his Noble Purpose by the committee, Jekyll takes Utterson to a low dive called the Red Rat for a “bachelor night.” There they meet two prostitutes, the appealing Nellie (Jennifer Stone), the alarmingly Amazonian Lucy Harris (Claire Blakeley), and their nasty pimp Spider (Sky Vogel). Jekyll shares a drink with Lucy, and then gives her his calling card because there was no mission of greater import to the Victorian do-gooder than saving a Fallen Woman.
Lucy, I should mention, is a brunette with an enormous pile of wantonly curly hair who wears nothing but alarming Victorian undergarments (I believe these came from Victoria’s Secret rather than the Good Queen) that display acres of heaving cleavage and creamy white thighs. Emma also has quite a bit of heaving cleavage, but keeps her legs covered and together. Lucy likes to swing her legs astride everything in sight – chairs, tables, men. She does a lot of that while singing her opening number Bring on the Men to the appreciative and well-choreographed panting of the male members of the chorus.
Women barely exist in Stevenson’s novella, but we all know that modern audiences will become peevish if forced to sit through an entire musical without any heaving cleavage, so in this version Stevenson’s monk-like Jekyll gets not one but two women panting lustily after him. Blonde Emma wears pastels and, ultimately, white, and pays lip service to being an “independent woman.” Brunette Lucy wears scandalously vivid colors and has no illusion that she is anything but a slave in the London sex trade. Hyde becomes Lucy’s client. Neither Jekyll nor Hyde gets lucky with Emma.
Back to our story, after the escapade at the Red Rat (great name for a dive, by the way) Jekyll can hardly wait to unleash his repressed urges and so he goes home and sacrifices himself to his unnamed Noble Purpose. Here we get the Transformation Scene. I will say more about Richardson's and Charles' excellent work here later. The important thing to know now is that Richardson plays both Jekyll and Hyde, and he does so without benefit of any costume change or make-up augmentation. In other words this Jekyll and Hyde look exactly alike, and no one ever notices the resemblance. This makes the entire population of 19th century London seem dumber than rocks. At least the citizens of Metropolis required Superman to put on his Clark Kent glasses before they were fooled.
A few days later Lucy comes to Jekyll to bandage a wound inflicted by Hyde. As he dabs at her shoulder with rubbing alcohol, distracted by guilt, she falls madly in love with him. No wonder this woman is a prostitute.
Act II opens to mayhem among the chorus members as Hyde kills them off one by one. Then the ladies spend a lot of time singing moving ballads professing their love for Jekyll and all that it has brought them. I have to say that this bored me to tears. But Hyde mercifully slits the throat of one of them, which shuts them up and leads to an excellent confrontation scene and duet between Jekyll and Hyde (that’s right, Richardson sings a duet with himself) which segues into the ultimate climax, which was actually quite moving, and would have been more so if the entire show had made any sense.
In a recent Albany Times-Union interview Richardson, who has played this dual role a couple of times before, said candidly, “...I wouldn't rank it very high in terms of literature.” That is putting it mildly. Bricusse’s book and lyrics are embarrassingly amateurish and absolutely humorless, and the overarching Gothic style is just plain silly. Wildhorn’s music is all in the same bland-pop style that amounts to nothing. I understand that figure-skaters love to set their routines to songs from this show, which pretty much sums up the style and quality of the music.
I knew exactly how ridiculous and artistically mediocre Jekyll and Hyde was before I walked into the Cohoes Music Hall, and as you can tell, my opinion hasn’t changed. And yet I had a wonderful time and am recommending this production highly. Why? Because it looks great, it sounds great, and it is performed by a talented and attractive cast who manage to move you past the foolishness and into the fun of the theatre. Lighting designer Matt Fick has done a good job of making the show look like a Victorian melodrama with footlights and other effects that strongly evoke the period. And you are sitting, after all, in a genuine Victorian-era Music Hall. The Cohoes Music Hall is fourteen years older than Stevenson’s novella. I can see Edward Hyde sitting in one of the boxes salivating over Lucy’s heaving bosom. It is just the sort of “naughty” entertainment that Henry Jekyll would have abhorred!
Charles and choreographer Jessica Costa, who have teamed up on successful shows at Cohoes in the past, have dispensed with the stage blood completely. While Jekyll and Hyde boasts a higher corpse count than, say, Hamlet, it is far less gory and horrifying. Which brings me to the transformation scene. This is a masterpiece of theatrical magic. Richardson becomes Hyde, and then Jekyll, and then Hyde, and then...using nothing but his body, face and voice, and yet you are absolutely clear on when he is playing who. I watched carefully to see if I could discern the trick to his rapid and very effective transformation, but I couldn’t catch it. His Hyde feels physically bigger than his Jekyll, and certainly more menacing.
Richardson is everything that a leading man should be - handsome, a strong singer, and a talented actor. Wildhorn has really constructed the show so that it hangs squarely on the shoulders of the leading man – and two chicks who look good in underwear – so the fact that he could and did carry the role off with aplomb was key to the entire show’s success.
And while I have been dismissive of the roles they play, Borelli and Blakeley also looked great and brought the requisite acting and singing talent to the table. Wildhorn wrote the part of Lucy specifically for Linda Eder, which explains why the character is simultaneously so omnipresent and so superfluous. Blakeley refers to Lucy in her program bio as one of her “dream roles” and her love of the character went a long way to making her sympathetic and believable in the part. And she did look very fine indeed in all the bustiers and bustles.
Dalton and Middleton, who have proven their abilities in many local productions, delivered solid performances in under-written roles, and lent their fine voices to Richardson’s and Borelli’s in the Act I quartet His Work and Nothing More one of the most musically ambitious pieces in the show.
The rest of the characters are just window-dressing, but I enjoyed seeing many of the talented C-R Productions “regulars” on the stage. I especially enjoyed Stone’s cheerful Nellie and hope I get a chance to see her in larger roles soon. Richard Gatta and Michael Lotano are two young men I always enjoy seeing, and it was fun to see teens Augie Abatacola and Maggie Ecker, who caught my eye in Disney’s High School Musical hard at work in the chorus.
The set by Jen Price Fick created the oppressive air of 19th century London without occupying too much of the small Cohoes stage. It also proved remarkably flexible, serving equally well as Jekyll’s laboratory, the elegant hall in which Jekyll and Emma’s engagement is announced, and the hellish Red Rat with the addition and subtraction of smaller set pieces.
Pamela Keenan’s costumes were lovely and period appropriate, except for the slightly too obvious and anachronistic zippers. The Victorian era was a stylish age for men and women who had the money to dress well. And it is fun to imagine that under their rags even the hookers were well-dressed. While there is little overt humor in the show, I found Keenan’s outfits for Faxon’s super-snooty Lady Beaconsfield and for Vogel’s over-the-top Spider to be particularly amusing.
Musical Director Adams Jones got maximum effect out of the seven-piece pit band. And I got a kick out of seeing Jason Howland credited with the musical arrangements. While Howland’s contribution was made in Houston and Manhattan and not in Cohoes, my memories of him as an ambitious and talented high school student in my adopted hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, made me feel proud of his adult accomplishments in a competitive and challenging field.
In closing, I should mention that Jekyll & Hyde has been through many versions, three of which are recorded (two "concept albums" and the Original Broadway Cast recording) and another of which was filmed with David Hasselhoff in the lead. The version being performed at Cohoes is closest to what was presented on Broadway, so if you just love this production and want to run out and buy a recording you will want the OBC. Jekyll & Hyde, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through March 18 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs a brisk two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. The show might prove scary, confusing, or boring (all those love songs!) to children under 10. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007