BWW Review: JEKYLL & HYDE at MacTheatre
It's #savage season at MacTheatre, the Fine Arts Academy of McCallum High School. #Savage feels firmly planted in 2019 as that word as every day vernacular, feels like new-fangled millennial vocabulary. But savage essentially means impossibly confident, self-actualized, and fearless disregard for societal norms. And there's plenty of savagery in JEKYLL & HYDE.
JEKYLL & HYDE'S widely known plot first garnered public attention in the form of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The story goes something like this: a mild-mannered doctor in 19th century London searches for a cure for his father's comatose state, believing evil within his father perpetuates his condition. After Dr. Henry Jekyll's research proposal to test his elixir on human subjects is rejected, he resigns to test it on himself. Whether it's love or lunacy, his choice activates an irreversible change in his personality: after midnight, he transforms into the sadistic Mr. Hyde. Jekyll's life then spins out of control as he chases the demons set free in the name of discovery.
Composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Steve Cuden wrote the score for JEKYLL & HYDE in the late 1980s. After some financial trouble and re-writes by Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, a world premiere production was planned.
JEKYLL & HYDE was first performed in May 1990 right here in Texas at the Alley Theatre in Houston. These performances put the musical on the map before closing in July of that same year. Seven years later, it premiered at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway in April. JEKYLL & HYDE closed after 1,543 performances in January 2001, but not before becoming the longest-running show in the history of the Plymouth Theatre.
MacTheatre's JEKYLL & HYDE makes a bold director out of Joshua O'Daniel Denning; but while the show offers deep themes of human nature, ethics, and fundamental good and evil, it forgets to explore these themes and falls into maudlin, gothic melodrama. MacTheatre's productions nails the impressively built sets, lamp-lit atmosphere and technical effects, but the overcrowded ensemble and shaky plot slowed the pace of the show significantly.
Shows like SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA have similar protagonists to JEKYLL & HYDE. But the demonic barber's and tortured musical genius's revengeful motivations are simple while also rich and three-dimensional.
As just a thinly motivated hero or the manifestation of pure evil, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is decidedly two dimensional. It doesn't help that after drinking the elixir, his "Hyde" side is involuntary. So his lack of choice in the matter steals craved character nuance. Jekyll's motivation slowly muddies in the name of moving the plot along and keeping it simple. His motivation jumps from a desire to help his father to selfish fascination with separating good and evil within a human being. By the time he's singing the bizarrely optimistic "This is The Moment" before drinking his elixir, his father's malaise has been all but completely forgotten.
So we're dealing with a 2 dimensional, debatably unsympathetic character, but this doesn't mean senior Owen Scales doesn't give all he has to the material. After a fabulous turn in 42ND STREET earlier this year, Scales roars back onto the stage in a dynamic turn as the title characters with strong vocals and confident physicality. As Hyde, Scales finds murderous Jack The Ripper-esque freedom of living without restraint or conscience. On the other side, he reveals Jekyll's struggle to douse this gleeful evil, and the fear that he just might revel in it. Scales' savagely determined Jekyll impressively upholds MacTheatre's savage season, despite cloudy character motivation.
Star of 42ND STREET Helena Laing plays Jekyll's steadfast and compassionate fiancé, Emma. Laing portrays Emma with gentle confidence, but with a deep well of inner strength to resist the opinions of those around her who've made the mistake of thinking they know what's best for her. She refuses to give up on Jekyll when he's passed off as too far gone to be saved.
Senior Cora Jordan portrays Lucy, a woman in Jekyll's, and Hyde's, life who differs only slightly from the respectable Emma. World-weary but hopeful Lucy dreams of escaping her oppressive life of prostitution. It's easier wished for than done, but after she meets Jekyll in her brothel, the vision of a new life grows. Emma and Lucy love Jekyll in their own ways, but maintain their own identities and passions. Jordan's stunning vocals are undoubtedly the most powerful out of the three leads, but unfortunately her overall performance felt sleepy and apathetic.
In the show's weakest moments, overcrowded ensemble numbers emphasized lackadaisical energy and dull execution of the choreography. But in its strongest moments, MacTheatre's JEKYLL & HYDE boasts imposing sets, eye catching technical effects, and an atmosphere inspired by the dark alleys of 19th century London.
With a single spotlight above a wiry hospital bed, the opening scene creates a feeling of dread and anticipation that settles on the audience like a thick fog. Jekyll's magnificently detailed laboratory swims in eerie lighting and colored flames to foreshadow an explosive yet doomed future. These inspired details highlight the Director's bold vision as well as Technical Director Stella Shenkman and Lighting Designer Bela Tapperson's ability to bring that vision to life. There's no doubt MacTheatre possesses some serious talent behind the curtain as well as on stage.
JEKYLL & HYDE's strengths do outweigh its weaknesses. In the middle of Austin, Texas, be transported to the rain soaked streets of London lined with nefarious deeds, ominous characters...and talent that's savage.
Photo Credit: Julia K Smith & David Winter
September 19 - September 29, 2019
McCallum Fine Arts Academy
5600 Sunshine Drive
Austin, TX, 78756
Tickets may be purchased in advance at https://mccallum.ludustickets.com/