Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)


“The only thing constant is change,” Dr. Henry Jekyll says to the board of governors early on in Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical; although he was referring to medical science in the show, he could just as easily be referring to the play itself. This is a work that has been workshopped, recorded, revised, augmented, and re-recorded so much since its world premiere in 1990 and subsequent original Broadway production in 1997 that one can never be quite sure what revisions will be a part of any licensed production. Such is the fate typical of composer Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War are two other problematic shows with which he continues to tinker. Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (the most current licensed version anyway) opens the Weathervane Playhouse season in a production that offers quite a fresh take on the material and features the best two lead musical performances I’ve seen locally this year.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical features music by the aforementioned Mr. Wildhorn with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse; the original 1997 Broadway production ran for just under four years, itself a product of two previous developmental recordings, and yielded several subsequent tours as well as a flop 2013 Broadway revival. No matter the incarnation, the show is about how Dr. Henry Jekyll’s search for a way to separate the good in all mankind from the bad in an effort to obliterate the latter. His experiments bring about Mr. Hyde, an alternate personality comprised of only the worst qualities of himself. As the two forces struggle for control over the same body, Emma, Jekyll’s fiancée, and Lucy, Hyde’s whore, are caught in the crosshairs of the struggle for dominance. The show seems like Mr. Wildhorn’s answer to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera; indeed, many musical motifs are recycled for different songs throughout, and it doesn’t take a musicologist to hear the influence of Lloyd Webber’s show on this one.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Director Adam Karsten has radically reimagined this Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical to present it on a mostly bare stage with a platform that opens to reveal a pool of water used quite effectively in several scenes. Translucent plastic tarps surround and cover the stage, revealing the vestiges of hanging portraits and chairs. The expert lighting design by Jennifer Sansfacon utilizes bold strokes of red and purple to establish settings, casting specific shadow designs onto the stage. Ms. Sansfacon also makes sure the pool of water glows an eerie indigo, and she seems the perfect partner for Mr. Karsten to create this new vision for the show.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

The problems begin almost immediately in the opening scene when Dr. Jekyll visits his father in a mental institution. In that scene it makes some sense that patients of reduced ability would perhaps be crawling and sliding around on the stage; it comes off as terribly overwrought, uncomfortable, and even laughable when the writhing around continues throughout the play and extends into the audience with planted actors. Still, Mr. Karsten should be congratulated for trying something different with the material; the use of water and light is really quite terrific, and why not add some blood and stripping cast members into the mix? I suppose the disrobing is to amp up the sex appeal, even though the sight of the youthful cast slowly disrobing, dipping their hands into buckets of stage blood, and slathering themselves with the goo – while a striking image – made me think, “What a mess… Good thing everything is covered in plastic.”

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

There are some really quite good songs scattered about, such as “Someone Like You,” “A New Life,” and the popular anthem, “This is the Moment.” Music director Kevin Wines presents the music effectively reducing the bombastic nature of the score to sounding understated and supportive of the talented cast’s singing. Every time I see this musical I find more and more of the book has been trimmed away, leaving a mostly sung-through show behind; it’s great to hear the near constant music be as well-managed as it is here.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy) and Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde)

The reason to see this show is for the performances by Connor Allston as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Myha’La Herrold as Lucy, Natalie Szczerba as Emma, and Layne Roate as Jekyll’s lawyer and friend, John. Mr. Allston is dedicated and determined as Dr. Jekyll, and his transformations between personalities are almost entirely represented by a slight shift in tone and a change in his intention; no laughably drastic facial changes, growling voice, or stooped limp here. Mr. Allston is able to convey the change internally in a way that resonates naturally, seemingly with little effort, and his voice is quite strong and moving; his goal to help mankind feels genuine, even if his experiments are destroying his and the lives of those around him in the process. Mr. Allston has the kind of masculine stage presence and vocal prowess that, even at his incredibly young age, should make anyone dream of seeing his interpretations of classic roles in Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific… You fill in the blank.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Herrold is every bit Mr. Allston’s match as the prostitute Lucy. At first she might seem miscast physically being that she is black and bald, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ms. Herrold challenges what might be considered traditional beauty by being by far the most interesting and striking woman on stage, and this is a show full of attractive actors. She has a mournful lament to her singing as Lucy in “Someone Like You” that is as heartbreaking as her moment of hope is thrilling in “A New Life.” Her voice is sometimes too powerful for the technical director to manage as some of her stronger notes cause light, brief distortion over the speakers; nevertheless, Ms. Herrold is touching and a memorable talent to watch. The way she handles her final confrontation with Mr. Hyde is intense and requires great technical skill to pull off as the pressure of the moment is mostly on her.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Szczerba has quite a bit less to work with in terms of characterization as Emma, but she does wonders with what is there. She’s appealing in a way that would make her a natural fit for Dr. Jekyll, and her singing voice is particularly striking during “In His Eyes,” her unlikely duet with Ms. Herrold’s Lucy; their voices are so different in style that they don’t compete with each other as I’ve heard other performers do with this same song, resulting in a beautiful mix of their voices that allows both to be heard. Mr. Roate has even less to work with as John, but he can be counted on to deliver his lines with weight and seriousness, effortlessly slipping into a warm singing voice. There is one brief moment where Mr. Roate invades Mr. Allston’s space in a way that comes off as so intimate that I thought the two might kiss; they don’t, but that silent moment has an incredible amount of subtext because of Mr. Roate’s actions.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Natalie Szczerba (Emma)

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical isn’t a great show, no matter which revised production or cast recording is being evaluated. This production takes risks with the material that fail as often as they succeed, and yet the sheer force and will of its four talented leads elevate this to being a show worth seeing; seriously, they are that good. This definitely isn’t the same Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical that I saw on its original Broadway tour, or the video of the closing Broadway cast (starring David Hasselhoff), or even the 2013 short-lived Broadway revival (thank goodness); this production is a different animal, but one that is consistently interesting to experience even when it misses the target.

*** out of ****

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical continues through to June 11th in the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/jekyll-hyde/

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Nice Work If You Can Get It (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

Nice Work If You Can Get It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and ran for just over a year. With a book by Joe DiPietro taking inspiration from works by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, Nice Work If You Can Get It was created in order to create a show around songs from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook while they were still under copyright and able to generate royalties for the estate. The story created to fit around the songs involves a trio of bootleggers hiding booze in the presumed vacant apartment of a Manhattan playboy at the height of Prohibition. Throw in a spoiled socialite, a crusading Prohibitionist, and a rather dizzy Senator, add dancing and that great Gershwin music, and you wind up with this delightful production that closes the summer Weathervane Playhouse season.

 

Photo: Adam Karsten – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Patrick Clements is the rich but rather spoiled and flighty Jimmy Winter. All he really has to do is show up and be handsome and suave, but that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Mr. Clements; he dances like a fiend and proves himself adept at physical comedy. His voice is velvety and warm, proving that he is a real triple threat. I would think he would be perfect casting for a farce like Noises Off at some point once he’s done wooing all the ladies as the lead in every other show.

Molly Griggs is Billie Bendix, the bootlegger destined to fall in love with Jimmy. Ms. Griggs is perfectly sweet in the role though the part comes off as underwritten to me. She gives off a good sense of camaraderie with her fellow bootleggers in the play, and once again she wears her period garb well. I just wish she had more of the kind of funny moments reserved for the supporting cast in the show.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Kayla Walsh is pure trouble as spoiled Eileen Evergreen, and she milks every moment for all that it’s worth. This show is one that gives all the best moments to the supporting characters, and Ms. Walsh pounces on each moment she has to draw attention to herself. She steals every scene, but the book appears to be written with that as the intent. She frolics in a bathtub then slips through a trap door in the bottom to emerge elsewhere on stage headlining the song “Delishious,” the title of which may just as well apply to Ms. Walsh as it does her character. I can see her playing Vera Charles in Mame, or even Rose in Gypsy at some point.

Ms. Walsh’s co-star Ryan Metzger would be a perfect Herbie to her Rose, if any theatrical producers out there are reading this. Mr. Metzger plays Cookie McGee, one of the trio of bootleggers in the play. He masquerades as a butler for most of the story, saying all of the kinds of things people in service would love to say but wouldn’t for fear of getting fired. But Cookie isn’t really a butler, so he can really dish out the zingers and sarcastic remarks because he just doesn’t care, and Mr. Metzger is the perfect person to deliver them. His timing is down and voice carries just the right kind of intonation that can generate laughter even if you didn’t quite get what he said; you would know that it was funny just by the way it sounded, and so you laugh. Sure, the script gave him the lines, but it takes someone like Mr. Metzger to hit them out of the park.

Layne Roate plays Duke Mahoney, the third member of Billie’s bootlegging trio. Mr. Roate plays the wan and mopey secondary part with great skill even though he doesn’t have a lot of material from which to work. I really felt sorry for him when he was thrust into pretending to be a cook, perhaps because I can’t cook and having to make a large meal like he did would’ve caused me to break out. He has a kind of helplessness in the part that is endearing rather than annoying as it could’ve been had it been approached differently. After seeing Mr. Roate in four productions this summer at Weathervane Playhouse, I definitely think this was his best performance.

Other notable performances are by Rebecca Keck as the domineering pro-Prohibition crusader Estonia Dulworth, and Barbe Helwig as Millicent Winter, who arrives near the end of the show, revealing a secret that stops everyone in their tracks. The only slightly sore spot is Kirk Paisley as Senator Max Evergreen. Mr. Paisley knows his lines and his blocking, but he seems to be listening for his cues rather than listening to what the characters around him are saying. He seems to express only one emotion – that of surprise – and so I didn’t buy that he was really interested so much in what was going on. It’s not like he wrecked the play; he just stood out against all of the terrific performances going on around him

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Scenic design by Jeremy Hollis
 
Jeremy Hollis’s set is impressive in size and design, opulent enough to pass for an upper class apartment but slightly off-kilter to be just right for some of the zany events in the plot. Some of the design embellishments aren’t perfectly symmetrical, and they shouldn’t be; this was an apartment that was rarely used and probably due for an overhaul anyhow. It still looks quite fancy and of the elite, however, and the way that the bathtub and has been integrated to serve the machinations of the story is quite impressive. As struck as I was by Mr. Hollis’s set for Dial “M” For Murder, this one is even better, laid out in such a way that every seat in the house is a good one for seeing the action.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Karen Sieber’s choreography is quite athletic and highly polished, definitely not for the faint of heart to tackle. She puts the cast through its paces with some tap routines that are quite engaging yet indicative of the period, and the cast seems to be having a grand time dancing up a storm rather than showing exhaustion like most of the audience would be were we to have to attempt the same feats. This is the kind of dancing that commands attention and applause, and Ms. Sieber is to be congratulated.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Director Adam Karsten has a firm grasp on this material and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. Mr. Karsten artfully navigates that often tenuous transition to song from dialogue, and he keeps the tone light and cheerful. As a result, Nice Work If You Can Get It emerges as a real crowd pleaser, and one of the better examples of the “jukebox musical” genre. Perhaps this work is better than most jukebox musicals because most (if not all) of the Gershwin songs included were showtunes already, having been in shows of the day and popularized as standards since. People of all ages are familiar with quite a few of the songs already from their use in films and commercials; they aren’t “plot” songs like in most of the shows we have now, so the audience can just enjoy them rather than listen carefully for things pertinent to the story.

The audience at the performance I attended was engaged throughout and was having a grand time, as did I; there isn’t much more you can ask for in a production this inspired.

***/ out of ****

Nice Work If You Can Get It continues through to August 8th at the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/nice-work-can-get/