Pop Broadway Gets Star Treatment in TUTS's Jekyll & Hyde

Check out our interview with Teal Wicks.

The setup:

The "Jekyll-heads" were out in force at the Hobby Center last night for Theatre Under the Stars' premiere of the latest pre-Broadway national tour of Jekyll & Hyde, the undying Frank Wildhorn (music)/Leslie Bricusse (book and lyrics) musical. They had much to cheer about.

The execution:

This quasi-operatic pop chestnut, loosely based upon Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (written in 1886, two years before Jack the Ripper's reign of terror in Victorian London), has undergone showbiz tinkering ever since its first appearance in 1990, when it was a co-production of TUTS and the Alley Theatre. After extensive overhauls, J&H opened on Broadway (1997) and played for a very respectable three and a half years, garnering four Tony Award nominations. Unfortunately, it still managed to lose $1.5 million, even as two other Wildhorn shows were playing on the Great White Way at the same time (The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil Wars). During its many international and regional tour incarnations, the show underwent more surgery: songs were dropped, scenes rearranged, songs put back in, new songs written. Which brings us up to date, when the producers decided it was time to satisfy those Jekyll-heads who can't get enough of these American Idol ballads or the pop star hair of the wicked Mr. H. It was definitely time to return to Broadway.

Through all the transformations, though, the show has retained its good genes. This latest production -- obviously there will never be a final one -- has been given a steampunk gloss by hot designer Tobin Ost (Newsies) which fits it like a snug Victorian corset. Projections cleverly fill in the minimalist black-and-gray look, and brick panels float in and pivot to add movement and variety. Jeff Calhoun's brisk direction keeps the living phantoms fluid, and there's no wasted energy. There's a lot more '30s Boris Karloff look to the show than I remember, and Jekyll's injection of his potion through tubes and bubbling columns of ruby liquid is highly theatrical, if not terribly convincing. Once upon a time -- as in the book -- the doctor simply drank the dastardly elixir and had done with it.

Perhaps the biggest change is the climactic "Confrontation," once staged as an overheated aria between Jekyll and Hyde, in which the unfortunate actor had to swish his hair back and forth with accompanying scary light cues from below, as he instantly transformed into the good doctor, swish, then evil Hyde, swish, then doctor, swish...It never really worked. Now, with synchronized digital wizardry, Jekyll sings with a projected image of himself as Hyde, superimposed on a giant painting in his townhouse parlor. Fireballs explode and mirrors shatter, with accompanying spooky sound effects, as Hyde's haunting image shimmies in hell-like heat. This solution doesn't work any better, as the animation looks chintzy and deprives us of watching the star do an actual real-time, real-life star turn, as hokey as it was.

There's plenty of life in J&H, thanks mainly to Wildhorn's unerring instinct with a power ballad. You can't go wrong with showstoppers "Take Me As I Am," "Once Upon a Dream," "A New Life" and "In His Eyes," but the unvarying pace of the numbers takes a toll. Prostitute Lucy's Kander and Ebb-influenced "Bring on the Men" is a refreshing welcome from the '90s pop wailing. And, sooner or later, you wish that Hyde's murderous rampage (sung with a nod to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd with "Murder") would take out lyricist Leslie Bricusse, who never met a rhyme he couldn't match as simply as possible. Heart, part, start is as clever as he gets. The melodies soar, the lyrics clank.

The show is magnificently sung, and the ensemble eats up Wildhorn's stratospheric tunes. As the songs ratchet up in key on each successive verse, the singers easily wrap their voices around the higher-flying sprung layers as if born to sing this way. In the demanding dual role of good doctor Jekyll transformed into terribly bad, sadistic Hyde, Constantine Maroulis, a Tony nominee for Rock of Ages, has the rock wail down to a science, and he can flick his thick mane of hair with more gusto than a manic David Lee Roth. His plaintive tenor growls dark and sexy when Hyde appears. As slut Lucy with her requisite heart of gold, Grammy-nominee Deborah Cox matches Maroulis's intensity with a dramatic smoky caress of a voice that sails effortlessly through Wildhorn's über-ballads. As Jekyll's haplessly good fiancée Emma, Teal Wicks brings as much cool elegance as possible to this thankless role. Her duet with Jekyll, "Take Me As I Am," and her lovely solo "Once Upon a Dream" are perfectly rendered.

The verdict:

Pop Broadway gets star treatment in this reconceived production. Although this is hardly the great show it should be, it looks great and sounds even better. No Jekyll-head will leave disappointed.

Frank Wildhorn's most tune-laden show runs through October 21 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Order tickets online at the company website or call 713-558-TUTS. $35.50-$114.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover