A string of bravura songs and borrowed staging ideas do not a successful musical make. But they may be more than enough for a profitable tour.
A musical adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson 1886 novella, “Jekyll & Hyde” came to life five years ago at Houston’s Alley Theater on the heels of composer Frank Wildhorn’s self-produced concept album. After several Broadway producing teams failed to move it, the show got a boost from a second concept album, this time a double CD that garnered airplay and Olympic anthem status. The 34-week Broadway-tryout tour opened in Dallas.
As a Gothic thriller, patently in the “Phantom” mode, it’s a crowd-pleaser, particularly in the cast’s awesome singing. But Wildhorn, writer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse and Alley director Gregory Boyd have reworked extensively Stevenson’s split-personality horror story into a gloomy wannabe epic and melodrama-fantasia on the themes of hypocrisy and duality. The result is that we don’t care much about the principals until well into the second act of this overlong opus.
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Creatives have added a double love interest — both stock characters. Jekyll (Robert Cuccioli), the proper doctor, is engaged to Lisa (Christiane Noll), the good daughter of Jekyll’s hospital boss. After the board rejects his good-vs.-evil research proposal, Jekyll frequents a canned Victorian version of the Kit Kat Klub, complete with dancing hookers, one of whom (Linda Eder) he befriends. Emboldened by her Sally Bowles-ish sauciness, he decides to test his formula on himself.
In Stevenson’s story, Hyde trampled a child and murdered an innocent man — for no reason. Here, he vengefully heads after Jekyll’s enemies on the hospital board. But they’re hypocrites and comic grotesques, killed off with bits of ghoulish humor. In effect, they deserve what they get. This might implicate the audience in Hyde’s evil, but nothing is made of it. It’s only when Hyde threatens Jekyll’s happiness toward the end that anything’s at stake. As it is, the first act feels static, another case of an upper-class Brit going slumming.
As a composer, Wildhorn will be compared to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but where Lloyd Webber came out of British art rock with its pop playfulness and classical pretensions, Wildhorn’s music recalls formula rockmeisters like Styx or Toto and pop ballad-belters like Whitney Houston. Other than a waltz and a requiem, what we get are big, soaring, hook-filled anthems belted by leather-lunged singers. In short, this may be the first “adult contemporary” musical.
In addition to “Phantom” and “Cabaret,” the show recalls “Sweeney Todd” in its metallic set and its attempts at social comment — with opening number “Facade” heavily underlining Victorian hypocrisy. Boyd, in particular, seems to have “Sweeney” in mind. Yet curiously, “Sweeney” choreographer Larry Fuller has little to do, and most of it not that exciting. Even the Kit Kat dance number “Bring on the Men” (whose melody recalls “Those Were the Days”) doesn’t relieve the first-act stasis.
It’s typical of the show’s split personality that its big hit, “This Is the Moment,” is a classic declaration of heroic pop ego — sung while Jekyll is going to take his medicine. That is, “the greatest moment of them all” is the doctor’s decision to self-destruct. Yet the number is presented utterly without irony or foreshadowing. It’s as if a singer belted “My Way” while shooting up smack. Add Bricusse’s generic lyrics, and the score at times like this seems perfectly detachable from characters and action.
Boyd was smart not to try any big-monster-makeup transformation. Cuccioli mostly messes up his long hair and shifts from the earnest-tenor to the growling-baritone end of his impressive range. But the special effects do give him a possible musical first: He duets with himself as both characters.
As for leading lady Eder, she shows little thesp or terpsichorean ability, but no one notices as long as her mouth is open. The 12-time “Star Search” winner has a stunning, show-stopping voice. The show’s muddle and bombast don’t seem to bother audiences: She has them on their feet.
Songs were dropped and rear-ranged in Dallas. A menacing pimp named Spider appears and is left undeveloped. The show was still being worked on, and needed it. “Jekyll & Hyde” may be a hit on tour, but in New York, it’s liable to get its throat cut.