'Jekyll & Hyde' a real thriller at Westchester

By Chesley Plemmons

NEWS-TIMES THEATER CRITIC

2001-08-12

It seems that the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusee musical “Jekyll & Hyde” has a split personality, not unlike its central character. On Broadway the show was overloaded with rock concert blare and flourish, hammering home its points with a sledgehammer.

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s new production has foregone such excesses, and, under the inspired direction of Bob Cuccioli, the show is reborn as an elegantly haunting Victorian drama — the likes of which haven’t graced this stage since its mammoth hit, “Phantom.”

Set designer James Noone and his co-designer and technical director Peter Barbieri, Jr. have conjured up an atmospheric London that is distinct in its own two selves: the refined and stylish society of Mayfair and the tawdry dives of the Limehouse slums.

Dressed in period-perfect costumes by Ann Curtis, the characters roam the foggy streets of these disparate worlds sometimes as predators, sometimes as victims. It’s a chilling portrait of good versus evil and the production reflects style and subtlety — a rare virtue in a thriller — in every department.

Man’s duality of character remains a fascinating concept more than a century after the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson first wrote the tale of a curious doctor who ingests a medical formula and loses control of a monster — his evil alter ego. It doesn’t take much of a leap to make the connection with today’s personality-altering drugs. They’re hyped as an elixir to free us from our repression — but too often, they unleash irresponsible and uncontrollable emotions.

Set in Victorian London, the story focuses on Dr. Henry Jekyll (Tom Schmid), a respected doctor who turns to unorthodox experiments when his father goes mad. He theorizes that if one could isolate the mad demons each of us possesses, but mostly keep in check, they could be exorcised, leaving the patient safe, healthy — and morally good.

When the Board of Governors at his hospital reject his proposals, he decides to try his new medication on himself. It certainly made a contemporary connection when instead of drinking the potion as is the case in most dramatizations of this story, he injects himself with a hypodermic needle.

The result is the emergence of a creature which is his evil side, and whom he calls, Hyde. As he continues his experiments, Hyde begins to control his own destiny with Jekyll unable to keep the dark apparition from appearing at will.

Its a story that makes its moral points with hypnotic ease. When Hyde prowls the slums he is drawn to Lucy (Michelle Dawson), a lady of easy virtue who works at The Red Rat. Attracted and repelled by him, the script makes clear their relationship is dangerously self-destructive.

On the more respectable level, Jekyll is engaged to marry the beautiful socialite, Emma Carew (Kate Suber). As the duel of control between the good doctor and Hyde intensifies, the contrast between Emma and Lucy becomes a dark mirror to the two halves of the man they love.

In the demanding role of Jekyll/Hyde, Schmid pulls out all the stops. He cleverly uses his steady tenor for Jekyll and allots Hyde a deeper baritone range, though in both cases he displays an impressive voice with enough sinew to sail easily over the music. Hearts surely flutter when he effortlessly tosses off the show’s big number: “This Is The Moment.”

And in that department, hats off also for the restraint of musical director David Andrews Rogers who has resisted turning the score into bombast. He chooses his moments for powerful emphasis carefully and that respects not only our eardrums but also the singers’ efforts.

As Lucy, Dawson gives a tremendously affecting performance. Vocally, she, too, is a powerhouse and she wins our sympathy with her amusingly bawdy turn as a lady for hire who catches a glimpse of a better life — but too late. She brings down the house with “A New Life.”

The entire cast couldn’t be improved on and the other principal roles: Suber’s appealing Emma, Dennis Parlato’s impeccable John Utterson, Steve Pudenz’s righteous Sir Carew and the six performers who play the short-sighted — and short-lived Board of Governors at the hospital are a joy.

The musical staging by Jean-Paul Richard is flawless. He turns the major ensemble numbers, “Facade,” “Murder Murder” and the gamy Red Rat anthem “Bring on the Men” into inventive exercises in movement.

“Jekyll & Hyde” may be a dark musical but director Cuccioli has polished it to a gleaming ebony and whatever reservations earlier visits may have generated have been put to rest.

“Jekyll & Hyde” will play through November 24 at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Exit 23 off of the Saw Mill Parkway, Elmsford, New York. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with dinner served beginning at 6:15; Sunday evenings at 7, with dinner at 5, and matinees Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1 p.m. with lunch from 11 a.m. and Sundays at 1:30, with lunch from 12 noon. Tickets are $52 to $75 and include show, meal and tax. Call the box office at (914) 592-2222.

  copyright@ 2000 by The News-Times

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