When Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, he probably never imagined the melodramatic spectacle that is Jekyll & Hyde, the musical. Filled with syrupy tunes that swell and crescendo in great wailing waves of emotion, Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's version of Stevenson's story is three hours of murder, mayhem and lust -- all put to song and dance. But silly as this might sound, Theatre Under the Stars' gooey production, now running at the Hobby Center, isn't without its campy charm.
Anyone who's watched cartoons on Saturday morning has seen a version of this tawdry tale. The kind and well-intentioned Dr. Jekyll (Kevin Gray) wants only to heal his mad father, who's locked away in an asylum. To that end, Jekyll invents a potion that he hopes will separate the good in a man from the evil (how that's going to help his apparently comatose father is unclear). When he's unable to get the board at the mental hospital to allow him to experiment on a patient there (surprise, surprise), Jekyll takes matters into his own veins, so to speak. And that's when things get wacky.
James Noone's set is full of Victorian flourishes, but Jekyll's gothic laboratory is priceless. Long work tables roll in from the wings. They're covered with mysterious bottles and concoctions. At one point, real fire leaps from a lamp. An enormous funhouse mirror flies down from the rafters and hangs above the scene, distorting Jekyll's image and foreshadowing all the weirdness to come. And when he injects himself with his experimental "medicine" using an enormous hypodermic filled with iridescent red goo, we know nothing good can come of it.
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The hardest moments to buy in this melodrama happen when Jekyll transforms into Hyde. It's frankly hard to get the Bugs Bunny version out of one's head when watching Gray flop and flail about the stage, singing as he goes through "The Transformation." Of course, unlike Bugs, Gray wants us to take him seriously. And honestly, he does as well as could be expected, given the unfortunate task at hand: singing beautifully while changing from a mild-mannered doctor into a growling (yes, Hyde really does growl), violent lunatic -- and making it all seem real. It's at moments like these that you understand why the ancient Greeks left the murder and mayhem in their tragedies in the wings, just out of the audience's view.
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Once Gray becomes Hyde, he's actually quite the hottie. And mean as he is, Hyde does some good in a vigilante sort of way. With his long hair flying free, he runs around offing the hypocrites of the city (one is a bishop who enjoys "buggering" children) in all sorts of brutal ways. He gets to wear a big bearish fur coat and becomes involved with a beautiful prostitute named Lucy, played by Luba Mason, a mesmerizing performer.
There's no better reason to see this production than to experience the raw electricity that is Mason on stage. Her rich voice can slip from velvety softness to big Broadway brass in a single moment, and she sings with her whole body. Mason throws back her head, clutches at the air with her fists, grips the stage with her feet and lets out gorgeously aching sound that would be life-changing poetry were it written down. It's worth braving the show's over-the-top melodrama to see and hear her sing.
When Hyde turns back into Jekyll, he must deal with his lovely fiancée, Emma, played by a swanlike Kate Suber, whose soprano is simply beautiful. As in all melodrama, Emma, the good and righteous heroine, is forever loyal to Jekyll, even when his experiments go haywire.
When everything gets dramatic with a capital D, the musical often approaches the ridiculous -- one particularly "serious" opening-night moment elicited smiles and even a few snickers from the audience. But director Robert Cuccioli manages to keep those moments to a minimum, and he even brings some intended humor to the surface, especially when the wealthy hypocrites get their comeuppance. And there are a few terrific songs sprinkled throughout the otherwise sugary score. Especially good is "Bring On the Men" sung by Lucy and her fellow ladies of the night, and "A New Life," also sung by Lucy. These numbers alone make the night worthwhile.