Created by a team including: Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden, stage musical Jekyll & Hyde certainly casts a new light on Robert Louis Stevenson’s familiar fable. The brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll, who, attempting to divorce man’s spiritual from his transgressive nature, accidentally taps into his shadow, manifested as Edward Hyde. It’s not long before Hyde becomes dominant. Like the blackouts that come with alcohol abuse, Jekyll awakes with no recollection of Hyde’s crimes. The idealistic scientist can’t deny the rush and exhilaration he experiences every time he drinks his potion, but the longer he continues, the harder to return from the dark realm.
Successfully bold in numerous ways, perhaps a bit improbable in others, Jekyll and Hyde is nonetheless, captivating and entertaining. After Sondheim premiered Sweeney Todd, the idea of setting such content to music was no longer shocking, and the two are notably comparable. Bricusse (Book and Lyrics) Wildhorn (Music) and Cuden (Adaptation) establish a world (19th Century London) where any appearance of civility is a pretense, merely concealing our petty, vicious impulses from others. This theme is repeated throughout, and Hyde’s atrocities more or less soft-pedaled. His victims are the board members who refused to subsidize his experimentation, and the murders are quick and clean. Hyde is vindicated by punishing hypocrisy. He is able to secure justice in ways unavailable to the altruistic doctor.
Which brings us back to Sondheim Sweeney Todd. The barber Sweeney Todd is horribly wronged by the caste system that enables the privileged class to abuse the dis empowered. When Sweeney shouts his terrible epiphany (wielding a straight-edged razor) “My arm is complete!” we get a chill. He doesn’t use Jekyll’s potion as a device, but like Jekyll, stealth and mayhem are the only remedy for corruption in a corrupt world. Sondheim’s “message” is that surrendering to the id can only end in catastrophe, while Stevenson holds Jekyll unaccountable. Understand, Sondheim makes a compelling case for Todd’s grisly grooming techniques. Strangely though, Sweeney Todd is less ambivalent, but much more subtle.
One of Jekyll and Hyde’s strengths is buffering the ethical questions by putting them in mitigating circumstances. If we follow that path, however, the word “Evil” should never come up, though the point may conceivably be that moral relativism simply doesn’t work. Jekyll & Hyde too often resorts to the cerebral, but in its best moments is exceptionally humane, touching, raucous and introspective. We can all certainly relate to the helpless feeling that comes with sticking to higher ground.
Director Bill Sizemore impressively navigates a piece that is laden with opportunities for cheesiness. It’s not easy to depict subjects like Jekyll’s transformation, prostitution, pubs, and bring something fresh to them. Sizemore uses the limited space well, and the timing is professional and intuitive. Another tricky element here is tone, and Sizemore is genuine and lucid without being didactic. The music is well conceived and executed, the costumes range from striking to outre’. The cast is poised and skilled at sharing their intensity and joviality.