Jekyll & Hyde

The Whole Backstage Theatre is running Jekyll & Hyde, the musical, at their lovely facility in Guntersville through next weekend.  Largely due to the weak script and score, this fails to be a gripping or thrilling show, but it is still an enjoyable, and occasionally impressive, evening of theatre.

We all know the story–a medical doctor in Victorian England thinks he has found the cure for mental insanity, and believes that his elixir will separate the “good” and “bad” halves of human nature, and allow the suppression of the evil side.  Denied the use of a test subject, he decides to take the drug himself, and unfortunately only frees his inner beast, who proceeds to terrorize London.  Unfortunately, this script is full of plot holes, and the score is uninspiring at best.  The original Broadway run, in 1997, is credited as being the longest-running flop in history, performing over 1500 shows without making its investment back.  The script takes forever to get going, doesn’t give us a lead character we can empathize with, fails to dig into the duality of human nature (even though it’s mentioned often enough), and even actively avoids being either edgy, thrilling, or frightening.  The songs consist almost entirely of tepid ballads throughout.  In other words, this was not the most inspiring choice of plays.

That said, the Whole Backstage Theatre works its butts off for this production, with a number of commendable scenery-chewing moments.  The direction, by John and Meagen Cardy, generally does a nice job of moving the action around the stage, and providing some interesting stage pictures.  The choreography, by Meagen Cardy and Hannah Yost, has its ups and downs.  The umbrella sequence on the streets of London is out of place; the dance number by the prostitutes is entirely believable; and the short sequence with the pimp, “Spider”, on the rolling staircase, while a bit of a non sequitur, is possibly the best 30 seconds of the show.  Karen Fancher did a fine job with the vocal direction (unfortunately, she can’t be a “music director” without live musicians as well).  The performers were all on-point, and hitting their notes and harmonies nicely, and on the few occasions when a singer got to finish with a strong belt, the opening-night audience responded with extra excitement.  The production could have used a fight choreographer, as the string of murders were generally unimpressive, and it was an interesting choice to have a show like this without a single drop of blood.

Brian Allen, as the title character(s), is scripted with the difficult task of creating two distinct characters with often no time for any makeup or real costume assistance.  This requires clear vocal and physical distinctions between the two characters, which necessitates the actor and director making a clean decision about what actually IS different about them.  For example, is Mr. Hyde crazy, or a “bad boy”?  The choice in this production seems to be that Dr. Jekyll is relatively “normal”, but acting and singing almost everything down into the stage floor; while Mr. Hyde is psychotic, portrayed with jerky limbs, a lolling head, and an occasionally gravelly voice.  A better choice might have been to portray Dr. Jekyll as a timid and mild milquetoast, with Mr. Hyde as a virile, testosterone-pumped, (and amoral) “man’s man” (which would also have helped explain “Lucy’s” otherwise confusing animal attraction to Mr. Hyde).  That said, kudos to Allen for chewing the scenery on a regular basis, as he flips back and forth between the characters.  The “Confrontation” number, when he has to perform a song duel between his two halves, is a physical tour de force, even if it would have been virtually incomprehensible without the assist from the lighting.  While the choices could have been better, he must be exhausted after every performance, because he is clearly leaving everything out there on the stage.

The remainder of the cast likewise put 110% into their performances.  Lyn Fulwider, as the prostitute, “Lucy”, sings beautifully, and has a very nice stage presence.  The script does a horrible job at justifying why she suddenly falls in love with Dr. Jekyll, but Fulwider runs with it, and manages to give us possibly the only character in the show with whom the audience can connect a little.  Ashleigh Walker, as “Emma”, the young society lady to whom Dr. Jekyll is engaged, likewise has the unenviable task of playing the love interest to a guy that isn’t scripted to show anything lovable, and goes through with a wedding even after a couple months of him being a jerk.  Even with that, Walker floats through the show with charm, singing her songs beautifully, and providing the nominal anchor to Dr. Jekyll in his difficult times.  The rest of the large cast fills their roles admirably, and sings the notes with ease.

The technical elements of this show are a mixed bag. The set, by Cody Carlton, is an impressive, two-level structure, with a balcony running across the entire back wall and down the sides, and one movable stair unit that is well-used.  Unfortunately, the furniture pieces flown or carried in to delineate the varied locations, are less impressive.  Leilani Hayes’ costumes are amazing, but there absolutely needed to be more of them, so that cast members could make some costume changes to “become” someone else. From the evidence onstage, the population of London consists almost entirely of the upper-crust and the prostitutes, who apparently mingle freely on the streets, while singing about the news of the latest murders.  Easy costume changes would have turned all these people into anonymous town citizens as needed.  The failure to provide extra costumes also turns the line that “Lucy”, the lead prostitute, says to Dr. Jekyll, about “not seeing your kind in here”, into a total joke, when the other patrons are very obviously the rest of London’s upper crust, most of whom have more stature and money than the Doctor (it thus also completely removes Lucy’s initial motivation for being attracted to him). The lights, by Brandon Vick, very nicely support the moods and locations.  Unfortunately, the automatic spotlight system needs a LOT of work.  One can only assume that the spots were set up just in time for opening night, and the board operator was programming them on the fly during the show, because at least 50% of the time the spotlights were nowhere near the actors. The sound, designed by Terry Fulwider, needs some of the money spent on the lighting.  Only about three of the actor microphones are any good, with everyone else sounding like they’re speaking and singing through a distortion tube.  Fortunately, the good microphones were handed to the actors with the most lines and songs, so it is only occasionally annoying.

Overall, the hard work put in by the Whole Backstage Theatre is clearly evident, and occasionally impressive.  There are some outstanding moments in this show, but they are not enough to compensate for a confusing script and a weak score, making this, unfortunately, merely an occasionally amusing spectacle.   Jekyll & Hyde runs through October 9.  Ticket information and show times are at this link.

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