“Jekyll & Hyde” has half the personality of its title character, and it’s the dour, humorless half. Despite a handful of big-bodied pop ballads that push their way through the dense operatic score, this much-traveled and revised musical quickly settles into a self-serious sameness that pretty much drains the well-known horror tale of whatever guilty pleasures lurk within.
The musical, which boasts at least one star-making performance, has developed a devoted following from a popular cast CD, and, barring critical banishment and a complete Tony brush-off, could translate to decent initial business on Broadway. But lacking the drama of “The Phantom of the Opera” or the epic scope of “Les Miserables” — the new tuner’s most obvious influences — “Jekyll & Hyde” probably doesn’t have the formula for a long run.
Both Robert Cuccioli in the title role (or roles) and Christiane Noll as the mad doctor’s fiancee have fine voices well-suited to the Frank Wildhorn score, but it’s Linda Eder as the prostitute in a love-hate relationship with Jekyll & Hyde — loves Jekyll, hates Hyde — who injects the morose melodrama with a big dose of vitality. Sounding like a cross between Barbra Streisand and Betty Buckley, Eder fills the theater with her voice and the stage with her presence.
Rather simply staged by Robin Phillips, “Jekyll & Hyde” plays out its familiar tale of good and evil on an abstract set (designed by Phillips and James Noone) that itself moves more than the actors. Too often confined to one portion of the stage and lit in unrelenting gloomy fashion, “Jekyll & Hyde” mimics opera in more than its score, its heaviness certain to be interpreted by fans as art and detractors as pretension.
Leslie Bricusse’s book follows the basic outline of the oft-told tale. The good Dr. Henry Jekyll (Cuccioli) has developed a serum that will separate mankind’s inherent good and evil, a formula he’s sure will cure mental illness — a leap in logic that goes unexplained. Jekyll is particularly anxious to test his formula since his own father languishes in a mental ward, but the asylum’s upright board of directors balks at the “heresy” of using the lunatics as guinea pigs. Jekyll takes the serum himself, turns into Hyde and sets about killing each board member.
The killings are quick, bloodless and more than a little stagy — the most gruesome is a cane through the head, shown in shadowy (and unconvincing) silhouette — and the victims are such unsympathetic hypocrites that Hyde seems more vigilante than demon. Until, that is, he takes a sadistic liking to the prostitute Lucy (Eder), who visits Jekyll for treatment of the lashing she received from his other half. Still, we don’t actually see his abuse of this character until late in the show, and since the Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation is achieved chiefly by Cuccioli lowering his voice and literally letting his hair down, the musical isn’t as horrific, or even as creepy, as it should be (or at all, for that matter).
Subplot has Jekyll’s fiancee, Emma (Noll), innocently standing by her man as suspicions and scandal mount. If Eder gets the best of the score’s songs (“A New Life,” “Someone Like You”), Noll at least has some nice duets, particularly “Take Me As I Am” (with Cuccioli) and “In His Eyes” (with Eder).
Cuccioli duets with himself in “Confrontation,” the big second-act solo clearly meant to be a tour de force but, despite Cuccioli’s best efforts, comes off looking more than a little silly. Standing upright (and hair tossed back) as Jekyll and crouching (with his locks stringing down) as Hyde, Cuccioli shifts back and forth as the personae trade verses. This kind of thing has been mocked in too many films — think Woody Allen interrogating himself in “Take the Money and Run” — to carry the weight of its climactic position.
Indeed, much of “Jekyll & Hyde” gets smothered beneath its own gothic sobriety. Even the unsavory Red Rat Inn that Hyde frequents seems as lifeless as it is tawdry, and wouldn’t it be more fun to afford the villain some malicious, Sweeney Todd glee rather than the somber determination with which he carries out his dastardly deeds?
The set, which uses lots of panels and cages (reminiscent of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) to change from drawing room to whorehouse, docks and laboratory, is confusing and busier than necessary, its movements distracting. The ensemble, which performs earnest, “Les Miz”-type anthems en masse (“Murder in the night air/Murder is a nightmare!” goes “Murder, Murder”), often seems cramped in the sectioned set.
In his lyrics and book, Bricusse brings nothing new to a tale that’s been adapted countless times, offering no psychological insight beyond the standard good-vs.-evil theme, and the characters show no signs of internal life or complexity. Couldn’t Lucy, or better yet Emma, show some sense of attraction toward the evil half of the beloved Jekyll? And Jekyll’s own motivations should be murkier than the good-hearted blather about curing his father. Odd that a musical about literature’s most famous split personality should be so monotonously single-minded.