Taking a grand musical theater piece and placing it into an intimate space can be a daunting task. While shows in the past have done this to nice effect (Chess, The Color Purple), it is not always an easy feat to manage. This summer the DOMA Theatre Company has chosen to attempt this sort of undertaking by mounting the 20-year-old musical Jekyll & Hyde on a stage that is more suited for intimate dramas than big production numbers. As impressive and honorable as this effort is, it frequently threatens to burst at the seams.
With music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, Jekyll and Hyde began as a concept piece in the late ’80s. When it finally had its debut in the early ’90s, it did so to mixed reviews, although it was still Tony-nominated. While the show certainly has memorable songs, the book is where its problems lay.
Opening with Jekyll (Chris Kerrigan) trying to understand the madness that inflicts his father, he faces a Board of Governors asking to take a patient at the mental asylum in hopes of using a potion he’s developed that will separate the madness from the man. He is (of course) denied this request and his dreams are shattered. Meanwhile, he is engaged to be married to one of the board members’ daughters, Emma Carew (Amber Gildersleeve), and soon enough he is at his own engagement party. Having tunnel vision, Jekyll heads off to what can only be assumed is some sort of bachelor party at the local whorehouse. There he meets Lucy Harris (Cassandra Nuss), a sexy sinner with a heart of gold whom he takes a fancy to.
But he has no time for that, because despite the engagement and his night out with the boys, he must figure out how to continue his experiments. In desperation (and in a highly charged power ballad), Jekyll takes the potion himself and instead of simply separating the madness from the man, he creates a split personality called Edward Hyde—a devilish man who threatens anyone who steps in his path. And quite frequently, slices and dices them as well.
That’s Act One. Act Two is all about Jekyll trying to get a hold on Hyde while dodging Emma and pursuing Lucy. And in modern musical fashion, pretty much everyone dies in the end.
While I wanted to really like this production and I appreciated the attempt to give the theater a certain feel of time and place, the low budget and lack of space created a look and feel that felt a little like community theater. The brownstone and mansion facades are nicely rendered but can be a bit distracting when you’re supposed to be inside a house, yet everyone is performing in front of it. The engagement party is sparse and only really given a nod of grandeur with two mini chandeliers that momentarily drop down. The showgirl’s burlesque house is nothing more than a tiny stage and a few chairs, but nary a red curtain or sparkly backdrop to give it any sort of pop. Probably the oddest staging choice is Jekyll’s lab which consists only of a wall of shelves above a fireplace. On these shelves are random objects such as a pictures, books and haphazardly placed vials and decanters of colored “potion” that Jekyll absently mixes together as if he’s seasoning a steak. And need I repeat the obvious? Potions. Above a fireplace.
With the production in a smaller house, some of these issues can be overlooked. (Except the potions. Resting above FIRE.) But what is troublesome is the direction by Marco Gomez which seems to be almost nonexistent. Actors frequently sing to the audience rather than each other, songs are sung standing in one spot when the grandeur of the music pleads with the actors to move around the stage. With nothing to do, arms get thrown around as if reaching for someone to tell them what to do. Whenever there is a disagreement or concern between two characters, one will frequently turn away from the other as if the issue is just so complex they can’t face it anymore. This is the kind of staging we expect from a high school and/or community theater production, not from L.A. stage.
Choreography by Angela Todaro feels more like crowd control—again—with the cast dancing for the audience and frequently looking a little embarrassed about it all. The movements have that stop/start quality so popular today, but not only does it feel anachronistic, it frequently doesn’t make a lot of sense. When you have a rollicking number like the burlesque “Bring on the Men,” we should be on our feet applauding when the song ends. It’s a fun song, but the four dancers look unsure and couldn’t stay together. This could have been the show-stopper, instead, it became a head-scratcher.
Luckily, the cast is game and tends to rise above the staging and direction. Not every cast member is successful, but there are some standouts. Gildersleeve as Emma is a beautiful girl with a great voice and she plays the role of the benign and sweet Emma perfectly. Banai Boyd as Nellie, the Madame of the whorehouse, has a fantastic voice and a great song with Nuss, called “The Girls of the Night.” The dreamy Randal Miles as Simon Stride doesn’t have much to do, but when he has his moment at the engagement party we hope for more from his velvety voice. (Why he does not end up a challenging suitor for Emma’s hand is beyond me. Blame the book writer.) Chris Kerrigan as Jekyll and Hyde has an amazing voice and throws himself into the role with gusto. However, I blame the direction for the fact that his acting is overshadowed by how many times he runs his hands through his disheveled hair, throws his chest out and drops his arms awkwardly behind him to show his transformation into Hyde. There could have been a creepier and more subtle way to do this. Regardless, there is no mistaking his terrific voice.
All of this said, the greatest thing this show has going for it is in seeing a star being born in Cassandra Nuss. As Lucy, she has some of the most gorgeously sung show-stopping solos (“Someone Like You,” “A New Life”) and has the stunning beauty and poise that prove she is a star. Remember the name, because it won’t be long before this girl is one of Broadway’s future leading ladies.
I will say this: the show sounds great. Had this been done in “concert format,” it would have been a complete success. As it stands, it’s a stubborn combination of good and bad elements that make for a show with a split-personality all its own. I guess that might make it kind of brilliant, considering the source.
Jekyll & Hyde runs through July 29 at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, L.A. Tickets are $30 for General Admission, $10 for Seniors and Students with ID. Visit domatheatre.com for more information.