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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The Nerd (Otterbein University – Westerville, OH)

First performed in 1981 in Milwaukee before becoming a hit in London in 1986 and then Broadway in 1987, Larry Shue’s The Nerd is the story of Willium Cubbert (Jeff Gise), a thirty-four year-old architect living in Terre Haute, Indiana, and his friends Axel (Connor Allston) and Tansy (Afton Welch), and how their lives are disrupted when Rick Steadman (Ben Folts) arrives for an indefinite visit. You see, Rick saved Willum’s life during Vietnam, but Willum never got to meet him; now Rick has arrived with little warning on the evening when an important business dinner is being held with Willum’s hotel magnate client Warnock Walgrave (Evan Moore-Coll), who brings along his nervous wife, Clelia (Lauren DiMario), and stubborn child, Thor (Kellan Behrens). Mayhem ensues as Rick is incredibly inept, obnoxious, and seemingly unaware of how he is frustrating everyone in his vicinity. Rick doesn’t leave, and his past connection with Willum prevents Willum from being blunt about the situation, until he is finally driven too far.

The Nerd is very funny, with moments so embarrassing that I felt the need to look away at times. It is all performed on one well-designed set intended to be Willum’s apartment, and the action takes place in November of 1984. It is important to keep the play stuck in 1984 as a clunky large answering machine, which figures largely in the plot, is artifact of that era, and I don’t think as a culture we are as sensitive to other people’s feelings as we were back then. If updated to 2015, I can see Willum easily dismissing Rick after the first night and finding a way to use technology to keep him out of his life, hurt feelings or not. Ah, but then we wouldn’t have this funny, slapstick-y play to enjoy, reminiscent of Kaufman & Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner in some ways. Aside from the last few minutes which I felt were not well written, The Nerd is a fun, well-constructed little comedy. It was a great choice for the Otterbein University Summer Theatre series.

Otterbein University’s Summer Theatre series is performed with the audience seated on bleachers in the front and to the left and right of the performers, with the cast and patrons all on stage together in the Fritsche Theatre at Cowan Hall. The performers are incredibly close to the audience, and it’s difficult not to be engaged in the story when you feel like you’re nearly a part of it. The cast is made up of students playing parts far beyond their years, but by and large they acquit themselves quite well. Jeff Gise plays Willum very straight, which is the only way the chemistry can work between him and Ben Folts as Rick. As Ben eats with his bare hands out of the macaroni salad and picks at the bottom of his shoes in front of company, Jeff’s turmoil is real, and he even starts to sweat pretty heavily (as does Evan Moore-Coll) when Ben is being frustrating beyond belief. Then again, I did see the opening night performance and perhaps that contributed to the sweating, but I really don’t think so. Jeff and Evan only started to melt when Ben began to drive them up the wall, and it made everything more real – and funnier. I’ve never been a fan of the type of cruel humor seen in films like Meet the Parents or The Money Pit where destructive mishaps are supposed to be funny, but The Nerd doesn’t cross the line into being overtly cruel or truly distasteful, another difference in the type of comedy that has grown in prominence in the more than thirty years since this play was written.

Ben Folts as Rick Steadman plays the part of the nerd to the hilt, wearing clothes that are so ill-fitting and mismatched that they need to be seen to be believed (costume designer Julia Ferreri is to be applauded – and feared!). And yet, Ben sings, plays his tambourine, and eats off the plates of others as if it is perfectly natural and surely shouldn’t bother anyone. If he played Rick as intentionally annoying rather than with such honesty at being socially inept then the comedy wouldn’t have worked. I have to give credit to director Melissa Lusher for that as well, and for keeping everyone from overacting and the play moving at a brisk pace. Comedy isn’t easy, but these kids performed it like pros, with Lauren DiMario particularly affecting as the nervous Clelia who likes to break things to relieve her stress.

It always tickles me to recognize actors from prior productions, and Connor Allston (Axel) I remember from last year playing the lead in Otterbein’s The Full Monty where he more than held his own among a terrific cast of guys. Connor has less to do here, but he wears his Miami Vice-inspired costume and hair with confidence and keeps things moving when Ben and Jeff aren’t on stage. He comes off as so natural and comfortable, and I hope to see him in future productions. Afton Welch as Tansy finds her footing midway through the first act, and from then on she is right in the thick of it, filling out the ensemble nicely.

I enjoyed The Nerd far more than Clybourne Park a few weeks back (not because of the actors or production, but because I felt the writing of that play was uneven and tremendously overrated), and the audience reaction had me thinking that they felt the same way. This play does nothing more than try to make you laugh, with no deep thought required. There is no deeper meaning or special moral to the story, so we’re left with that which is enjoyable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

*** out of ****

The Nerd continues through to July 3rd in Westerville, OH (less than half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.otterbein.edu/public/About/Calendars/ArtScene/TheatreDancePerformances/ost.aspx