If you watch the revamped version of “Jekyll & Hyde,” now touring the country en route to a New York opening next spring, you’ll quickly be able to guess why critics held their noses but audiences applauded during the first Broadway incarnation in 1999.
The musical, which opened at Belk Theater Tuesday night, offers a slew of rafter-raising musical anthems, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, one-dimensional characters and gleeful vulgarity. I know the prior “J&H” only through the original cast album, but revival director Jeff Calhoun seems to have taken just the right approach: He has sought out and stressed the few tender moments and embraced the many segments of exuberant lunacy.
Those extend to a quintet of singing corpses in act two, a den of iniquity in which Victorian prostitutes behave like Kit Kat Girls from “Cabaret” – in the fine, swaggering new song “Bring on the Men” – and a laboratory for Dr. Jekyll with bubbling water tubes that look like the villain’s lair in “Dr. No.”
Only once do Calhoun and set designer Tobin Ost make a terrible mistake, in the once-thrilling “Confrontation” sequence. Before this, the actor onstage twisted back and forth between the characters of Jekyll and Hyde from line to line. Now little Jekyll confronts an immense, distorted projection of Hyde on the back wall, observed by staring eyes in the wallpaper as if he were a loony in an Alice Cooper video.
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Constantine Maroulis, an effective actor, handles even this bit of nonsense as well as anyone could. He’s more interesting as the gentle Jekyll than the brutal Hyde, but he understands how composer Frank Wildhorn builds songs: Virtually all of them start quietly and end in a roar, and Maroulis can croon or belt skillfully.
Deborah Cox has what-the-hell wryness as Lucy, the prostitute who yearns for Jekyll but finds Hyde’s cruelty mesmerizing. (Book writer Leslie Bricusse never makes this idea work.) Her “Someone Like You,” the only significant song to end softly, has real emotion. And the wistful Teal Wicks gives Emma, Jekyll’s perplexed fiancée, every bit of nuance and warmth the writers allow.
That isn’t much, sadly. The depth of Bricusse’s lyrics can be gauged by Jekyll’s opening lines, sung to his mad father:
“Lost in the darkness,
Silence surrounds you
Once there was morning,
Now endless night.
If I could reach you,
I’d guide you and teach you
To walk from the darkness
Back into the light.”
Jekyll creates his soul-splitting potion – no longer drunk, but absorbed like an intravenous drug user – to help his poor father regain sanity, a device that opens the play and is never discussed again. (Why this potion creates an evil alter ego, no one tries to explain.)
Things happen in Bricusse’s world simply because he wants them to, from Jekyll’s unlikely visit to Lucy’s bar/brothel to Emma’s willingness to “forget” Jekyll’s tell-all journal. And I’m willing to believe all of us have good and evil sides, but must the evil be utterly depraved?
The small chorus of 14 (many of whom are pulled away to play principal roles) and the vigorous pit band provide non-stop energy. The subtlest thing about the show is its sound design: I understood almost every word in the sixth row and the very back of the orchestra.