This most recent adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of Jekyll and Hyde captures a quality of the original source in a way the creators certainly never imagined: the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusse musical is split into the good and the very, very bad. Powerful singing performances, especially by the scene-stealing Sharon Brown, and elaborate settings comprise the positive elements, yet they are overwhelmed by a muddy story adaptation, uninspired staging, transparent lyrics and a forgettable, old-fashioned score.
Lacking a point of view, or even accessible characters, the show is perpetually cold. Director David Warren may be trying to bring out the gothic quality of Stevenson’s story, but even when scenes of suspense or emotional confrontation are set up, this production squanders the opportunities. This is especially true of the final scenes, where climactic moments are spoiled by a poorly staged entrance and an awkward and unnecessary narration.
In this version, when the hospital’s board of governors denies the driven Dr. Jekyll (Chuck Wagner) the opportunity to continue with his experiments, he decides to use himself as his subject. Jekyll begins ignoring all the positive forces in his life — his fiancee Emma (Andrea Rivette), his best friend John Utterson (James Clow) — and becomes absolutely engrossed in his work. His alter ego Mr. Hyde emerges to take revenge on all those who had challenged the good doctor.
Stevenson’s tale seems ripe for a contemporary take, even without being transplanted to a modern setting, given its focus on a scientist whose experiments with chemistry and the human mind run amok.
In too many ways, though, this version is mired in the past. The design team effectively creates a gothic atmosphere, evoking a kind of theater noir, but even the backdrops with black-and-white drawings and the use of silhouettes begin to feel slick and static instead of expressive. The music, the operatic style and even the choreography mimic the much more satisfying “Les Miserables” right down to the final spotlight.
And while there’s plenty of room for the creation and expansion of female characters absent from the original source, lyricist and book writer Bricusse paints a painfully stereotypical saint in the all-forgiving Emma and sinner in Lucy (Sharon Brown), the prostitute — with, of course, a heart of gold — who becomes the object of Hyde’s obsession.
It is a particular credit to the performers that, although the female characters are cardboard thin and their scenes slow an already slow-moving narrative, the audience is always happy to see them. Rivette plays the thankless role of Emma with an appropriate stillness counterposed with a vibrant voice.
It is Brown, however, who has the audience in the palm of her hand. Where everyone else seems to be trying very hard to please, Brown effortlessly transforms some very bland songs into show-stopping arias.
Chuck Wagner as the title character certainly has the vocal talent for this very demanding role, but the way in which he separates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde defines the weaknesses of the adaptation. Dr. Jekyll is not so much driven by a desire to do good as he is by an unbearable pomposity. And Wagner’s Hyde is a ridiculous monstrosity with an evil laugh straight out of the Saturday morning cartoons.
When Hyde goes on a killing spree in a musical montage beginning the second act, the number becomes bizarrely comic, since Hyde is more absurd than threatening and his victims already have been portrayed as emblems of an inhuman bureaucracy. In a tale of good and evil, there’s a problem when murders elicit a giggle.