By Tom Wachunas
“…This is the moment! Damn all the odds! This day, or never, I’ll sit forever with the gods!...” –lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, for the musical Jekyll & Hyde
It’s not unreasonable to think that the very idea of making Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, into a musical theatre work would seem destined from the start to be little more than a predictable exercise in cheesy melodrama. On its surface anyway, the 1997 musical (book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, music by Frank Wildhorn) lives up to that potential.
The task of transcending the musical adaptation’s rhetorical histrionics to offer something of truly artful substance rests squarely with the director and cast. I’m thrilled to report that in this Players Guild production, director/ choreographer Michael Lawrence Akers and his cast have accomplished the task in memorably grand fashion.
Set in 1888 London, the iconic tale of Dr. Henry Jekyll and his diabolical alter-ego, Edward Hyde - and Jekyll’s noble but futile mission to eradicate human evil – unfolds, or rather explodes, on the Guild’s downstairs arena stage. It’s the physical intimacy of that environment which very effectively foments an already turgid narrative and magnifies the astonishing expressivity of the cast.
In his dual role of Jekyll and Hyde, Joe Haladey delivers an utterly electrifying and uncanny rendering of impassioned light hopelessly fused with horrific darkness. As Jekyll, his tenor vocalizations are heart-piercing in their tender or plaintive sincerity, particularly in moments with his betrothed, Emma. In that role, Amanda Medley shines with her crystalline soprano. The sweetness of her character’s faith in her beloved Jekyll slowly fades to credible perplexity and hurt as he increasingly gives himself over to his doomed experiment.
Haladey’s Edward Hyde, as you might expect, is another matter altogether. From the gnarled face, the fly-away tangled hair (as Jekyll, his hair is tied back in a ponytail), and glaring eyes, to the gravel seemingly embedded in his lower-register voice, the transformation is wholly startling. And nowhere is his classically articulated struggle between good and evil more riveting than in the appropriately titled song, “The Confrontation,” late in Act II. Haladey is a frightening, agile embodiment of split personality.
The alluring, silken muscularity of Heidi Swinford’s singing voice is well-suited to playing the role of Lucy - a sultry, hapless prostitute. Along with her companions draped in Victorian-era lingerie (all the period costumes designed by George McCarty II are stunning), she struts about a tavern with campy sensuality in “Bring On the Men.” Careful what you wish for, Lucy.
Not long after she meets Jekyll, and being deeply moved by his goodness, the dichotomous tensions of the story become ever more taut when Hyde seeks out Lucy’s “services,” only to subject her to his numbing, carnal cruelties. Those are choreographed with enough vicious authenticity in their duet, “Dangerous Game,” to raise an audible grimace from the audience. Later in the proceedings, Swinford and Medley join for one of the show’s most intensely poignant songs, “In His Eyes,” wherein Lucy and Emma, each unbeknown to the other, voice their affections for Jekyll with impressive bravura. As with all the songs here, the singing is crisply enunciated in perfect balance with the beautiful sonority of the off-stage live orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons.
Following each instance when Hyde executes his bloody sentence on a prominent citizen, the panicked townsfolk scurry on to the stage, holding up their newspapers’ front pages about the latest homicide, frantically waving them like so many surrender flags. The lavish ensemble number, “Murder, Murder,” becomes a desperate societal chant, thunderous in its polyphonic harmonies.
A haunting allegory of our depraved times? Great theatre such as this can make it hard to tell the difference between art and life.
Jekyll & Hyde – The Musical, at Players Guild Theatre’s W.G. Fry Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N, Canton, Ohio. THROUGH SEPTEMBER 20 / Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM / Single Tickets $26, 17 and younger $19, Seniors $23 / BOX OFFICE (330)453-7617 / www.playersguildtheatre.com
PHOTOS, courtesy Players Guild Theatre: Joe Haladey as Edward Hyde, and Heidi Swinford playing Lucy