MAGNA — The musical Jekyll and Hyde the musical opened on Broadway in 1997. Based on the novel written by Robert Louis Stephenson in 1886, the story has permeated modern culture enough that when one says a person is a “Jekyll and Hyde,” the listener expects a person who has different personalities. The story itself has been adapted into TV shows, movies, plays, and even cartoons.
Jekyll and Hyde is quite an ambitious musical for a community theatre to produce. Not only is the story dark and Frank Wildhorn‘s music (with lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and Steve Cuden) complicated, the role of the main character is one that is physically and emotionally demanding. It is also quite a dark tale, something one might expect when seeing a Shakespearean tragedy rather than a musical. The score is lovely, and some of the songs quite famous. It is certainly a worthwhile piece of theatre and an excellent choice for Halloween.
The Empress Theatre did a good job of bringing the story to life, and I was impressed by several of the elements. The first thing I noticed was the overall talent of the cast during several of the chorus numbers. Having seen Jekyll and Hyde a number of times, I have often noticed that the ensemble numbers can be strained because the group songs don’t have the happy dancing or other more common aspects of traditional musical songs. In “Façade” the chorus had tight harmonies, and the director Nancy Jensen and choreographer Kylee Ogzewalla made an excellent use of the small space. The opening of act II, “Murder, Murder,” was also a strong number, and the chorus members helped to move the plot along and instilled a sense of urgency that was needed after the intermission. The only ensemble number I did not enjoy was the “Board of Governors” in the first act. In that number, Dr. Jekyll presents to the board of Governors his research and asks for a specific need, which they all find appalling. Each of the ensemble members reacts with disgust and disdain, and they make their points known vocally while Dr. Jekyll is singing, thus overshadowing his lyrics. It left the number feeling chaotic, and had I not been familiar with the music, I would have been quite confused regarding why Dr. Jekyll felt this research so important.
Another very strong element to this show was Curtis Bailey‘s lighting design. Light can be used to help the audience tell the difference between day and night, and good and evil. In a show such as Jekyll and Hyde, these distinctions are even more important to the flow of the plot line. Bailey made excellent use of different lighting, and I was particularly impressed with his choices during the transformation song, “Alive,” and “Confrontation.”
Playing with the duality theme, there are two main female leads, the fiancée, Emma Carew (played by Andrea K. Fife), and the more seedy character of Lucy Harris (played by Sarah Johnson). Some of the most beautiful and well known songs are sung by these two characters. Lucy helps illustrate that the difference between good and is not always clear. My favorite moment with Fife was at the very end, a particularly difficult scene to play, which she nevertheless executed with great strength. To give much detail would give away the ending, so it is sufficient to say that Johnson handled the tragic elements of the ending with a strong emotional performance. Fife had some microphone and sound problems throughout the night, so she should be given credit for the fact that her voice still filled the theatre. I also enjoyed the number “Once Upon a Dream.” That is a number that Fife was able to express through her acting the remorse of lost love and the loyalty people feel through bad times.
Johnson had several excellent numbers, including the popular “Someone Like You,” and “A New Life. ” I also was very taken by the performance by her and Eric Barney, the gentleman who masterfully played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of the song “Dangerous Game.” The choices made by the actors and the director were surprising and different than I had ever seen with this number, which was refreshing and rewarding. Usually the song is played as a forbidden and confusing romance, however Johnson played the song as one of fear from just how evil Hyde was, and that seemed to support the story line better than it does in other productions.
Finally, a great deal of credit to this show must be given to Eric Barney. Being the title character, a strong Jekyll and Hyde would be essential to the success of the show. Throughout the show, Barney excelled at this difficult role. When he first sings the songs about Jekyll’s research, his love for Emma, and his own hopes and dreams, I could tell that Barney had a strong voice and stage presence. However, when he began the song “Transformation,” I was impressed that he was able to truly bring a difference of character, voice, and even demeanor to the role. Barney’s performance reached its peak during the song “Confrontation,” where each of he must switch between Jekyll and Hyde several times. I have seen this number done masterfully, and I have seen it done badly. I commend Barney for being one of the ones that I would categorize as masterful. It is truly one of the most difficult male musical theatre roles written in the last 30 years, and it is apparent that Barney has spent a great deal of time working to bring this character to life.
Jekyll and Hyde is a show that invites its audience pondering tragedy, goodness and evil, and how they intersect. It has a great deal of difficult subject matter, so understand that when deciding age range to see the show. For those that can handle it, though, it should be a rewarding experience.