There’s nothing like a Manichaean musical to brighten up your day…or more likely your evening. You can ponder the eternal battle between the light and the dark, compare the body count to that in “Sweeney Todd,” all the while enjoying some rather fetching melodies. This opportunity is being offered by Norwalk’s Music Theatre of Connecticut as it opens its 37th season with “Jekyll & Hyde,” a loose reworking of the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, the show under the direction of Kevin Connors. This exercise in the dissection of the human psyche and soul is often quite entertaining, but its inevitable conclusion (and the time it takes to get there) may have audience members leaving the theater in search of a good stiff drink.
Many who attend the show may not have read the original novella, but odds are they are familiar with the book’s main plot point: good doctor Henry Jekyll, seeking to understand the workings of the human mind, experiments on himself with a potion of his own creation. Instead of scientific revelation there is the emergence of Jekyll’s darker side in the form of the murderous, maniacal Edward Hyde. What follows is Jekyll battling for his soul against his alter-ego. It remains to be seen who actually wins the battle.
After a long period of development, regional productions and a national tour, the musical, originally conceived for the stage by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden, with music by Wildhorn, a book by Leslie Bricusse and lyrics by Wildhorn, Bricusse and Cuden, opened on Broadway in 1997 and enjoyed a four-year run. It has been described aptly as a “musical horror-drama,” a phrase that might seem a bit oxymoronic if not for the success of its kissing cousin, “Sweeney Todd,” which opened on Broadway several decades before.
The MTC production captures the dark nature of the musical and visually reinforces, especially in the final Jekyll-Hyde conflict (compliments of lighting director Michael Blagys) the metaphoric battle between the light and dark aspects of humanity. Central to the success of any production of “Jekyll & Hyde” is the casting of the male lead, and Connors wisely chose Andrew Foote to take on the task. Foote is, as the need arises, suave and sophisticated and, at other times, essentially demonic, and he delivers several of the show’s signature songs, chief among them “This is the Moment,” with almost overwhelming energy.
It’s always interesting to see how a production of the musical handles the Jekyll-Hyde transformation. In the case of MTC, it’s done simply by an unraveling of Jekyll’s hair queue to create a wild mane that almost covers Hyde’s face, as well as a demonstrative change in body language (Jekyll stands upright; Hyde often crouches). Do we, the audience, believe in the transformation? Absolutely, much to Foote’s credit.
For those familiar with MTC, the idea of a “big production” doesn’t immediately come to mind, but given the theater’s confines, Connors, casting 13 actors, often fills the stage, making the ensemble numbers – “Façade,” and “Murder, Murder” – very satisfying, and the five musicians situated up-stage often give the impression that there’s a full orchestra hidden somewhere.
Supporting Foote in his dynamic take on the Jekyll-Hyde character are Carissa Massaro as Emma, Jekyll’s intended bride, and Elissa DeMaria as Lucy, the prostitute whom Jekyll befriends and Hyde, well, uses and abuses. Although one might quibble about the vocal range of these two ladies, Massaro and Foote offer a lovely duet with “Take Me as I Am” and Massaro touches the heart with “Once Upon a Dream.”
It’s DeMaria who has the bigger shoes to fill, for the role of Lucy was created by the incomparable Linda Eder, for which she won a Theatre World award and a Drama Desk nomination for best actress in a musical. Comparison is often a fool’s game, so we’ll take DeMaria’s performance on its own merits, which are substantial. However, there seems to be just a touch of stridency in her renditions of “Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” Perhaps just bringing down the emotional level just a notch might round out the performance.
If there’s any problem with “Jekyll & Hyde” it has nothing to do with MTC’s staging of the musical, but rather with the book itself, which has been fiddled with numerous times. Quite simply, it’s too long and suffers from redundancy. As for length, the set-up leading to the Jekyll-Hyde transformation is over-stated – we get the premise early on (in fact, most come into the theater already understanding the premise), and so several of the songs (it’s essentially a sung-through musical) that reinforce Jekyll’s desire to plumb the depths of the human psyche seem superfluous. Then there’s the transformation, which everyone in the audience is waiting for. Late into the first act a thought arises: when the hell is Jekyll going to become Hyde? That’s what we’ve all come to see so let’s get on with it.
Thinking about the musical and its emotional trajectory, it might be better if it was re-thought as a one-act production, with a lot of the ‘fat’ cut away. After all, the source was a novella, not a novel. However, Connors and company must deal with what they’ve been given, and the effort is often quite pleasing. There’s a sense that, walking out of the theater, you’ve seen a “big” musical on a relatively small stage, which is one of MTC’s fortes.
“Jekyll & Hyde” runs through October 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.