Friday, June 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Jekyll & Hyde" from Pittsburgh CLO. Airing: Sunday June 19, 2011

The musical Jekyll & Hyde has had quite an interesting, enduring life. Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden wrote the score and lyrics in the late 1980s, but that version never got off the ground. A re-write with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse opened at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1990 and went on to performances elsewhere including a national tour plus a CD in the mid-90s. It didn’t get to Broadway until 1997 where it ran for over 3 and half years, despite mixed reviews.

Certainly the famed story remains fascinating, even if incarnations in movies and plays, while keeping the original, fundamental premise, bear little resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. The musical, locally produced by Pittsburgh CLO, tells Bricusse’s version well, performed with fast-moving, believable sincerity and, in most cases, sung in fine voice. Credit director Robert Cuccioli for the result. He originated the performances of both characters on Broadway.

Kevin Gray has the title roles. His Hyde surges with dark intensity. His Jekyll begins totally without character but, later, emerges more convincingly intense when the good doctor becomes less good. Gray’s voice on opening night didn’t seem up to the demands of Wildhorn’s many sustained notes. That’s quite a contrast to first-rate singing by Brynn O’Malley as Jekyll’s fiancé Emma, and Elizabeth Stanley portraying Hyde’s doomed lover Lucy. Both women also superbly tune the acting dimensions.

As for Wildhorn’s music, it much resembles the pop opera sounds of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodramas or Schönberg and Boublil products. Every so often good melodic lines appear among the 25 songs, but too many get stretched out into down and center pushy big sells. Plus, a café scene starring Lucy features an anachronistic bluesy number which has nothing to do with the period suggested by the rest of the score. Meanwhile Bricusse’s utilitarian lyrics come across as totally obvious and unimaginative. So, despite a touch of Sweeney Todd in the night, concept-wise, neither lyrics nor music get near Sondheim’s class.

Cuccioli’s staging makes many scenes thoroughly dramatic. Especially telling, he has Jekyll’s first connection with the dreadful, transformative formula an injection in the arm rather than, as traditional, drinking it down. This graphically reminds us of the personal destructions of drug addiction. Cuccioli also gets good lighting and scenic effects, even though simple rather than spectacular, from John McLain and James Noone.

The cast, by the way, includes Pittsburghers Tim Hartman, Daniel Krell, Jeff Howell, Michael Campayno and Joe Jackson with Hartman playing a supporting role, the others being less visible.

Characteristically CLO has no background information about the creators of the material it offers, despite a full page devoted to executive producer Van Kaplan. i.e There is enough space to have included a couple of paragraphs about Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn.

London-born Bricusse is probably best known for creating songs with Anthony Newley in Stop the World - I Want to Get Off , The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd, and the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Other credits include Victor Victoria, movie and Broadway versions, plus much more. Bricusse also wrote the music in the movie Doctor Dolittle, a stage version of which became a musical that CLO produced here in 2005. It briefly, unsuccessfully toured.

In 1999 Frank Wildhorn became the first American composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War. His Dracula, The Musical ran five months there starting in 2004. This year Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure, with his music, book by Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd, Murphy’s lyrics, also played on Broadway, closing in a month. Other shows produced elsewhere include musical versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, Bonnie and Clyde and a re-working of a Bizet-less Carmen.

After many years of knowing much about various takes of the story of Jekyll and Hyde, it only just occurred to me the perfect choice in the name of “Hyde.” Surely other people have also noticed this before, that is, that Hyde represents a hidden character within a seemingly virtuous person. Plus that some fierce animals have coarse hides.

I don’t think you will get emotionally involved in this tale or how it’s told, but, to CLO’s credit, you certainly can find it looking and sounding substantial.

Jekyll & Hyde continues through June 26th at Benedum Center, Downtown. 412/456-6666 or

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