Run to this 'Hyde'

By EDWARD BUROUGHS
FOR THE JOURNAL NEWS

(Original publication: Aug. 12, 2001)

"Flawless" would not describe Dr. Henry Jekyll — the obsessed young doctor who finds the right chemical mix to split his evil thoughts into the terrifying Edward Hyde.

But flawless is the best word to describe the new staging of "Jekyll & Hyde" at Westchester Broadway Theatre. Everything about it is as good as it could be.

Not that the show, which closed on Broadway about a year ago after a run of more than three years, is everyone's idea of a good time. It turns Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 story "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" into a near sung-through musical with a vastly altered plot, complete with seven violent onstage murders and the proverbial prostitute with the heart of gold.

There's actually little in Leslie Bricusse's book that provokes emotional involvement, even with two love interests for Jekyll. Frank Wildhorn's always soaring music can sound familiar even when it isn't. Many New York critics called the show pop entertainment. Perhaps fulfilling that assessment, it built a near cult following.

But at the dinner theater in Elmsford, none of that matters: The effect is spellbinding.

The large cast nails character with precision. The singing and musical direction (David Andrews Rogers) are wonderful. The lighting (Andrew Gmoser), set and technical achievements (Paul Barbieri, Jr.) are creative and precise.

There's simply nothing that gets in the way of being carried along with the storytelling.

The show differs in several ways from the Broadway production — there are song changes, scene shifts and less dialogue. But the greatest change — and challenge — was to mount it in a theater where the audience is on three sides of the stage.

From the opening scene, first-time director Robert Cuccioli (the first actor to portray Jekyll/Hyde on Broadway) and musical stager Jean-Paul Richard, use imagination to make the unusual configuration an advantage.

Singing the theme-setting "FaCade" (everyone has a dark side), the company moves in two crowds around the stage — the tattered poor and the gloriously outfitted rich.

Dr. Jekyll soon challenges some of the same wealthy social leaders, serving on his hospital's board, for permission to conduct experiments on permanently deranged patients, one being his father. "If we could extract all the evil from each of us, think of the world that we could create," he sings.

The board rejects such nonsense, setting up Jekyll's leap to using himself as a test subject. The resulting creature — the all-evil Hyde — embarks on murderous revenge.

In the lead role, Tom Schmid makes Jekyll's obsession seem rational. A driven, work-obsessed, soft-spoken man as Jekyll, Schmid carefully allows glimpses of Jekyll's inner traits that will later become the overtly physical, violent, deep-voiced Hyde.

"This Is the Moment," Jekyll's decision to go ahead with his experiments, reaches two climaxes — first in Schmid's stirring performance and then as a set change when Jekyll's cluttered lab of test tubes and Bunsen burners rises into view. Schmid ably replicates Cuccioli's famous shift of hair from ponytail to stringy mess that defines who's onstage — Jekyll or Hyde. The duet by his two sides — "Confrontation" — sounds silly in concept, but works. (Will Swenson performs the role at Thursday matinees and on Sundays.)

The two women in Jekyll's life are his fiancEe, Emma (Kate Suber), and the prostitute Lucy (Michelle Dawson). Emma is all propriety with streaks of independence and passion — characteristics well-delivered by Suber. She does a fine job conveying the intensity of her hopes in "Once Upon a Dream," even though the lyrics are lightweight.

Lucy meets the kind Dr. Jekyll when he wanders into the Red Rat pub in an attempt to get as far as possible from narrow-minded society types who think him dangerous. She and the chorus deliver a bawdy, sparkling "Bring On the Men" dance number.

Later, when Lucy falls for the man and sings "Someone Like You," Dawson captures a charming moment by having Lucy react with sudden surprise at her new vitality, pausing at the song's emotional peak. Here, again, the fluid staging works wonders as the scene moves during the song from Jekyll's study to a full-moon nightscape on the London docks.

Suber and Dawson join for the stirring love duet "In His Eyes."

Dennis Parlato provides invaluable solid grounding as Jekyll's confidant, John Utterson, in both narration and key speaking scenes. The ensemble works precisely with individual character details appropriate for each scene. They, and the audience, have the most fun with the second-act opening number — "Murder, Murder" — as Hyde stalks and takes down his victims.

Copyright 2001 The Journal News

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