By James V. Ruocco
"Jekyll & Hyde" is an oft-produced musical for many reasons.
To begin, there's the story itself: a good vs. evil scenario involving the creation of Dr. Jekyll's alter personality, the very twisted, murderous Edward Hyde.
Frank Wilson's commanding musical score, is yet another important element.
As is, the musical's London setting, its sinister plot machinations, its violence and murders, its unnerving twists and turns and more importantly, the havoc it wreaks on unsuspecting members of the audience.
The latter is amped to deliciously wicked perfection in Music Theatre of Connecticut's enthralling production of "Jekyll & Hyde," a musical event that tears you emotionally in half and one that will leave you reaching for that treasured bottle of scotch, gin or brandy bottle tucked away in your antique liquor cabinet, the trunk of your car or under your bed with other unmentionables.
This "Jekyll & Hyde" demands to be seen.
It takes itself seriously without any camp, Victorian tomfoolery, cliches or stereotypes.
Its haunting undercurrents bookend the show.
It's chock full of sexual ersatz.
And finally, it never once makes the mistake of taking the material or its audience for granted.
Staging "Jekyll & Hyde" for Musical Theatre of Connecticut is Kevin Connors, a deft, important and savvy interpreter whose directorial credits include "Evita," "Master Class," "Next to Normal," "Gypsy," "Doubt" and "The Fantasticks," among others. With this production, he crafts a brilliant, mesmerizing tale of dual identities and horror that grabs you by the throat, pushes you over the edge and leaves emotionally drained, as well it should be.
The space itself, small, intimate and inviting, thrusts the audience into the piece as both participant and voyeur. This concept works most effectively as actors enter and exit through the audience, pausing now and then to entice, delight, stop or scare certain individuals. Or even better, when the lights go out, flash, change color or the music builds to a crescendo as Jekyll morphs into Hyde or vice versa. What's especially gratifying about the latter, is that you never know what's going to happen next or what Connors has up his sleeve, good, bad or scary.
Using vivid, imaginative three-quarter staging to tell the "Jekyll & Hyde" story, backed by only select set pieces and black, cut-out backgrounds and draperies, Connors sets everything in motion splendidly, always making the right, creative decisions to make the material fly. He also takes chances, one of which heightens the Gothic aura of the piece. In this go round, there is an element of 19th century Whitechapel mystique and spookiness representative of the Jack the Ripper murders and crimes that heightens this edition's emotional, scare-tactic velocity. It's an ingenious plot device that oddly was conspicuously absent from both the original Broadway production and the National Tour. Here, it works wonders. Well done, Mr. Connors.
The musical score for "Jekyll & Hyde" is perhaps composer Frank Wildhorn's most appealing work, ranking just slightly above the equally inspiring "The Scarlet Pimpernel." It is harmonious. It is driven. It is well-plotted. It complements the show's twisty horror elements. Every one of the songs is appropriately placed and positioned. Nothing looks or sounds out of place. Each of the musical numbers that are given to the principal, supporting or ensemble cast members are sharp, focused, melodic and intuitive.
Since its inception, "Jekyll & Hyde" has changed its face through many incarnations, including both the Broadway and National Tour and earlier editions at The Alley Theatre and Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas. Songs have been added. Songs have been dropped. Songs have been revised. The order in which they are sung in both Act I and Act II has also been up for debate depending on Wildhorn's creative prowess and theatrical whims.
Here, at Music Theatre of Connecticut, this "Jekyll and Hyde" adheres to the plot machinations and song list from the original Broadway production. As penned by Wildhorn (music) and Leslie Bricusse (lyrics), the two-act musical retains its assorted blend of showstoppers (there are many including "In His Eyes," "This Is the Moment," "Once Upon a Dream," "A New Life" and "Take Me As I Am," to name a few) its able-bodied pop ballads, its grand, operatic pronouncements, its Gothic-tinged beats and rhythms, its passionate solos and glorious, 19th century anthems.
Musical direction for this "Jekyll & Hyde" is offered by the very talented David Wolfson (conductor/keyboards) and band members Paul Feyer (second keyboard), Susan Jiminez (cello), Chris Johnson (drums) and Natalie Kriegler (violin). Everything is timed and orchestrated in accordance to the show's original concept and themes with subsequent changes here and there to adhere to the intimate, environs of the Music Theatre of Connecticut space during scene changes or subsequent musical interludes that require 30 seconds or more of additional vocals or orchestrations. It all comes together and sounds so beautiful, even Wildhorn would be moved.
As "Jekyll and Hyde" makes its mark, Wolfson builds and fashions each of the musical numbers according to the blue print set forth by Wildhorn and Bricusse. Songs unfold naturally without question or awkwardness, helped by the sheer energy of the entire cast, who step forth, in character, to sing a variety of musical moments, styles and flourishes that are all beautifully conveyed and exhibited under Wolfson's exceptional guidance and tutelage.
"Jekyll and Hyde" stars Andrew Foote as Dr. Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde, Carissa Massaro as Emma Carew and Elissa DeMaria as Lucy Harris.
Foote is upright and dashing as Dr. Jekyll and evil and twisted as Edward Hyde. He moves between the two characters effortlessly. His transformation is explosive, incredible and scary. And when he sings, his voice is alive, powerful and exciting in ways that would make both Wildhorn and Bricusse stand up and cheer.
Massaro's portrayal of Emma Carew is strong, emotional, beguiling and personable with none of that Victorian pandering or posing found in other period musicals. Vocally, her voice is strong, sure and radiant, which is exactly what the part and the vocals call for.
The full-voiced DeMaria is a knockout as Lucy Harris. Vocally, she doesn't copycat the show's original creator Linda Eder (the star of the Broadway production and pre-Broadway tryout). Instead, she offers brassy, bold, confident, focused vocals that stand on their own and warrant full applause at every musical turn. Acting wise, she communicates the angst, passion and lowliness of her prostitute character with equal dexterity.
"Jekyll and Hyde" is the first of four productions from the Music Theatre of Connecticut 2018-2019 season line-up. Waiting in the wings are "Cat on On Hot Tin Roof," "Always...Patsy Cline" and "Cabaret." It is a haunting, eerie, thrilling piece of theater, superbly directed by Kevin Connors and voiced by a full-bodied ensemble cast that gives Frank Wildhorn's celebrated musical the angst and passion it so richly deserves.
Photos of "Jekyll & Hyde" by Heather Hayes.
"Jekyll & Hyde" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave., Norwalk, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.