Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jekyll & Hyde: Bad News From God

Constantine Maroulis as Jekyll
Jekyll & Hyde, by Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn, and Steve Cuden. Directed/choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Constantine Maroulis, Deborah Cox, and Teal Wicks. Currently running on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre through May 12th.

It's almost cruel, at this point in Jekyll & Hyde's abbreviated run, to spit too much upon its grave, or to take much joy in its failings. It's a flawed show, and everyone knows that. The lyrics are uneven at best, the book is clunky and blunt, and it indulges more in the pulpy love triangle than in the more compelling moral quandary of its source material. But I want to like it. I'm in the minority, but I like Frank Wildhorn. I like his music. There's a heroism to it, a romantic hope for the best in us. The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first Broadway show, and it made me fall in love with live theater in a permanent way. And I loved the two-disc concept album for Jekyll & Hyde, starring Anthony Warlow, Carolee Carmello, and Linda Eder. The original Broadway production, which I saw in 1999, did not live up to the show I imagined as I listened to the concept album; but then, neither did this one.

This production is the beneficiary of revisions to both book and lyrics, particularly as regards to the group numbers. Unfortunately, those revisions don't improve nearly enough - the characters are still sketched rather too broadly, with the exception of our three leads, and jumps in the plot occur far too frequently without the emotional grounding to make them feel organic. We hold this show to a higher standard in these regards because we are dealing with a dramatic story, with three-dimensional characters, not the light and fluffy fare of "musical comedy." Cinderella this is not. It's all to easy (as well as trendy) to lay all the blame at Wildhorn's feet, to dismiss all his shows as mediocre fluff with a pop sensibility (the horror!), but I think there's more to his work, more to this show than that. Uneven though it may be, Jekyll's songs of conflict, particularly in Act Two, are richly written, and Hyde's musical themes are terrifying, even as we thrill to to the relish with which they are performed. We care, even despite ourselves - and perhaps this is what people resent.

As to the revisions - some smart changes in the score include chopping down on the ad nauseum reprises of "Facade" (although its Act Two zombie reprise deserves a hearty WTF), and, more delightfully, replacing the beyond-dull "Good 'n' Evil" with its concept album predecessor, "Bring on the Men" - arguably Bricusse's cleverest lyric in the whole bunch. Though Deborah Cox's version lacks the ballsy gusto that Linda Eder brings to it in concert, her performance of "Someone Like You," at least, is touching and simple.

(We won't really touch on the accent work in this show, in part because I'd argue there was almost no work done at all on these accents. Dick Van Dyke did better.)

My greatest complaint against Constantine Maroulis, who has given credible enough performances in lighter, more contemporary fare like The Wedding Singer or Rock of Ages, is not even his regionally ambiguous accent - it's his vocal choices in song. His Jekyll slides up and down each note, rarely hitting one dead on. This leads to an unexpected but massive flaw in his performance - we can't trust him as any kind of hero, even before the turn. If he cannot commit even to one note per syllable, how can he then commit to one ideal? Maroulis kills Jekyll's heroism with his need to show off his vocal prowess. It doesn't help that they've dropped the original conceit of a tenor Jekyll to a baritone Hyde. Hyde is as tenor here as Jekyll is, though with a rawer rock edge to his style, but it's not enough to differentiate the two. Though he clearly enjoys playing the free-wheeling anarchic and violent Hyde more than the straight-laced Jekyll, he slips into his natural inclinations while singing, and the two personae blend. Maroulis's limitations as a varied performer become most painfully clear in "Confrontation." What had been, in its original incarnation, a tour de force duet-for-one, as the lead actor flipped between his dueling selves in front of us, is reduced here to some house of horrors light show, as a prerecorded digital projection of Hyde overtakes Jekyll's portrait to argue with the live-singing Jekyll below him. The thrilling tension is gone, and one instead wonders who is chewing the scenery more - the digital Hyde, who dances across the walls, or the live Jekyll, bashing his face against the same walls in impotent rage. [I should note that I spoke to someone else who had seen both productions, and she preferred this newly-revised performance of "Confrontation" as less silly than the original hair-flipping mania. Perhaps they are both silly.]

Constantine Maroulis as Hyde and Deborah Cox as Lucy

Not all staging changes were for the worse, of course - the reconfigured "Facade" now serves to explicitly delineate the class divide of gentry-vs-working class, as well as introduce our secondary antagonists, the Board of Governors. Even "Murder" is a clearer staging, less cartoonish, less frantic (and fewer umbrellas). The use of ensemble in this production, the staging of large group scenes by director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, is expertly done. This is not a song-and-dance musical, but there are bodies in space, and they slide in and around each other, through panels and mirrors, with a crispness tonally appropriate to the era. However, outside the group numbers, the solo and duet songs are rather dull and unimaginatively performed. Calhoun, whose past work includes the visually innovative Deaf West revival of Big River as well as the more dreamy Grey Gardens, comes up short here. More often than not, characters pace the stage aimlessly, or stand and deliver their songs straight out to the audience, as if it were a concert, regardless of where the person they might be addressing is located. Also disappointing is the fight choreography, or lack thereof. Every murder, every attack felt clumsy and carried out in slow motion.

If I seem to be overly harsh with this show, it is only because I wanted to like it so much more than I did. For now, I'll listen to Anthony Warlow's album and imagine the show I never saw.

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