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Spooky Schmaltz

Jekyll & Hyde is back, and off-off-Broadway this time around

Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's Jekyll & Hyde premiered at the Alley Theatre in 1990, then in '97 moved to Broadway, where it enjoyed a long and healthy run as the show critics loved to hate. Jeered at for its cartoon-deep characters and its brassy pop-opera sound, the maudlin tale, loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson's spooky novella about the evil inside us all, is now enjoying a wonderfully melodramatic turn at Masquerade Theatre.

A hundred and twenty years after the story first appeared, Dr. Jekyll remains the preeminent bipolar wild dude in Western literature. And Luther Chakurian, with his big warm voice and earnest bear-brown eyes chews up the tiny stage at Masquerade with a perfectly over-the-top schmaltzy performance as the doctor who would be God. Whether he's singing "Take Me As I Am" to his lady love or "This Is the Moment," where he declares his undying commitment to the fates of science, Chakurian's Jekyll is a bold, big-fisted hero in a madman-in-the-attic sort of way.

Of course, one would have to be full of manly scientific commitment to take the sort of risk Jekyll does when he picks through the bubbling, smoking vials of blood-red liquids on his laboratory table. He mixes and stirs and writes in his scientific log, and finally he drinks from an appropriately spooky tube. He's so high on science that he's willing to ingest his own bad medicine. Of course he's still really pissed off that nobody on the board of St. Jude's hospital will let him experiment on one of their insane inmates, but those board members will get theirs later.

Luther Chakurian as Dr. Jekyll with Deanna Julian's Emma.
Luther Chakurian as Dr. Jekyll with Deanna Julian's Emma.

Meanwhile (there's always a meanwhile in this sort of story) his betrothed, Emma (Deanna Julian), has no idea how dangerous Jekyll truly is. In blissful ignorance she sings love songs with him and about him. Julian, whose usually bell-like voice strains some with the material, is a bit too much of a doll in this thankless role. Her wide blue eyes hardly blink as she skims through the motions of her part as the fluttery Victorian girl.

Dr. Jekyll has an infinitely more interesting friendship with Lucy (Melissa Fertel), a local prostitute with a heart of gold. And Fertel, as the saucy wench who steals Jekyll's heart, delivers the strongest performance of the production. Her "Bring On the Men" number, in which she sings in a brothel, backed up by her sisters of the night, is the most energetic of the show. Also powerful are the numbers in which she sings of her love for Jekyll and her dreams of "A New Life."

As the story marches toward its inevitable end, the stage gets darker and darker. Jekyll's dream of separating the bad parts of the human psyche from the good parts go completely haywire. And the bloodthirsty Mr. Hyde, who emerges from Jekyll's chemically induced mania, begins to take over and, well, behave very badly. The ending is Victorian Sturm und Drang at its best.

The greatest criticism that could be leveled at this lively production is that it takes itself too seriously. As directed by Phillip Duggins, the thin characters stalk about the stage glaring through devilish eyes. Even "The Confrontation," in which Jekyll fights for control with Hyde (both are played by Chakurian, mind you), is sung with such earnest dramatic zeal that the moment is undermined by its own overwrought intentions.

But Duggins makes good use of his small space, placing actors on multiple levels, including a platform high above the stage. And designer Russell Freeman has created a graceful set with a spinning backdrop that turns between scenes. The timing of the production is also smart.

I can think of no better way to celebrate Halloween than a trip to the creepy laboratory of one of Western literature's most ill-fated scientists.

 
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