A cynical trend has taken hold of the musical theater world, and it is on full display in a touring version of “Jekyll & Hyde” that opened Tuesday night in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
We’ve seen inklings of it before, with head-scratching forays into stunt casting making their way into half-hearted revivals of classic Broadway fare. Molly Ringwald, for instance, starred in an entirely ill-advised production of “Sweet Charity” in 2007. And former “American Idol” star Taylor Hicks, in an embarrassing performance for the ages, was supposed to be the major selling point of a dead-on-arrival revival of “Grease” in 2010.
Happily for fans of this pop-rock musical who go by the glorious sobriquet “Jekkies,” this vastly retooled version of “Jekyll & Hyde” isn’t as bad as either of those. This is faint praise, but reason enough for diehards to see the show again and all but the most tolerant non-Jekkies to save their money.
So utterly transformed is this version of the show from its original Broadway run that its stars and creative team have taken to calling it a “revisal.” Some songs and reprises have been cut, others added, lyrics edited, the total length reduced and the entire score reorchestrated. There are also new sets and costumes by Tobin Ost and new choreography by director Jeff Calhoun.
The show stars former “American Idol” contestant Constantine Maroulis and R&B singer and former “Aida” star Deborah Cox, both of whom fight and charm their way through roles for which they are miscast.
Maroulis is the more successful of the two and turns in a convincing portrayal of both the buttoned-up Henry Jekyll and his unhinged alter ego. He also does everything possible to stretch his limited vocal range to the sometimes strenuous demands of Frank Wilhorn’s poperatic music and around Leslie Bricusse’s thoughtful lyrics. Cox, who inserts fun little R&B flourishes into her songs and gives us a beautiful version of the show’s best song, “Sympathy, Tenderness,” struggles to inhabit the skin of her character. The chemistry between the two (or three) characters fizzles as a result.
It’s hard not to feel a little bad for both of these hard-working leads. Even though Wildhorn and others tried to rejigger the show to fit the prefab style of “American Idol”-era corporate pop, they seem out of place individually and especially together. It’s a casting decision that makes no sense, but which attempts to copy the music industry practice of randomly mixing two star ingredients together and hoping against hope for magic.
This is a cynical approach, and it extends into the production design. In interviews before their appearance at Shea’s, Cox and Maroulis each inexplicably described the production as “minimalist.” But with the exception of some subtle design elements and some synth-heavy re-orchestrations that turn down the pace and volume on songs like “Bring on the Men,” maximalist might be a better descriptor.
Ost, the show’s designer, did insert many clever and striking design elements, from an imposing vertical wall upon which Jekyll’s institutionalized father hangs in the first scene to a series of hanging mirrors that triple as gritty walls and projection screens. But any restraint that Ost showed in the first act soon breaks down into gimmicky eye candy. By the time Maroulis sings a duet with a projected version of himself (“Confrontation”), complete with projected explosions that put one in mind of a first-person shooter game from the early ’90s, all hope is lost. (In the original, Robert Cuccioli sang the duet literally with himself, switching between Jekyll and Hyde before our very eyes – much more fun to watch than a video screen.)
Some fine performances do shine through the copious stage fog, including Cox’s duet on “In His Eyes” with the lovely and vocally gifted Teal Wicks, who tried her best not to outshine the lead but did anyway. Maroulis, on the show’s most popular song, “This Is the Moment,” did everything humanly possible to shoe-horn his voice into the song, and the results were respectable.
It’s true that “Jekyll & Hyde” was a piece of pop junk food from the day it premiered on Broadway and through its subsequent revisions and tours across the globe. But this version, because of a trend toward stunt casting and other reality TV-inspired choices its producers apparently found irresistible, does little to improve upon the original.
Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical
Two and a half stars (Out of four)
Through Sunday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. tickets are $32.50-$67.50. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.