Like a carnival freak show or a tough waterfront dive, "Jekyll and Hyde" is a guilty pleasure. We cluck our disapproval at the nastiness spread before us, but it sure is fun.
Camelot Theatre's new production of the Frank Wildhorn musical about Robert Louis Stevenson's dual-natured Victorian physician opened Friday night in Talent, directed by Livia Genise. The script takes its sweet time to get going — we don't meet the London hookers until about halfway through the first act — but once the show is rolling, it quickly gathers a creepy momentum.
What: "Jekyll & Hyde," a musical
When: 8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 21
Tickets: www.camelottheatre.org or 541-535-5250
But first Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the book for Wildhorn's Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish/gothic power pop score, leisurely uses up four scenes giving us the setup. In part that's to give us a framework of normalcy against which to measure the chop-chop stuff that's to come, but if Bricusse had trusted his audience, it could have been done more expeditiously.
On to the sex and violence, please! Nobody ever accused a Wildhorn musical of being too subtle.
Henry Jekyll (Robin Downward) is an idealistic, highly respected doctor in Victorian London who is obsessed with the idea of separating man's good side from his bad (it's a thin line, right?). He wants to conduct experiments using drugs on the inmates of a mental institution.
He gets turned down (properly, it would seem, although that's not the way we're supposed to take it) by the snooty, Goody Two-shoes on the hospital's board (a hypocrite priest, a haughty retired general, others). So he does the only logical thing. Experiments on himself with weird drugs.
Bad idea. The potion Jekyll concocts hits him like simultaneously smoking way too much crack, overdosing on meth and being sloshed with whatever's the opposite of Puck's magical love juice from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He thrashes about for a moment, then promptly unleashes his inner Hyde and begins hanging out at the best little whorehouse in London and killing those irritating board members one by one.
How to stage the transition from Jekyll (good) to Hyde (bad) is the question. It's done without either makeup or stage magic. Downward, who as Jekyll has a thick mop of dark hair brushed back, simply pulls his hair down over his forehead, changes his expression from benign to malevolent and alters his bearing from upright to lurching. And the lighting turns red.
Voila! The horrible Mr. Hyde.
This is good stuff from Downward, who plays the role straight, and who proves in stretch-out numbers such as "This is the Moment" to be a singer capable of room-jarring power (who knew?). His best moment is "Confrontation," the "duet" Jekyll and Hyde sing together, which is also staged without any special trickery.
The show also gets strong performances from bad girl Lucy (Kelly Jean Hammond), a hooker with a heart of gold (yup), and good girl Emma (Kendra Taylor), Jekyll's aristocratic and way-patient fiancee. Taylor exudes a trusting sweetness in songs such as "Once Upon a Dream." Hammond tears it up in "Someone Like You." To see and hear the two combine late in the show on "In His Eyes" is the closest this campy melodrama gets to genuine pathos.
In addition to terrific performances from the three leading players, the show features Taja Watkins' atmospheric London skyline, flashy dance numbers by Renée Hewitt, impressionistic violence from fight choreographer Tyler Ward, scene titles via projections, and thunder, lots of thunder. Hmm. Maybe the thunder isn't literal.
A live, off-stage orchestra of woodwinds, keyboards, horns and drums performs a very long score admirably. There is no attempt to create the iconic London fog (who needs a fog machine to tell us where we are?).
The play's central conceit is that Hyde's world — dark, sexy, unbridled, violent — and Jekyll's world — safe, well-meaning, respectable, inhibited — both lurk within us and are separated by the thinnest (remember?) of lines. Naturally, as we forge ahead, Hyde's world is infinitely more exciting, and more fun for the audience, than Jekyll's.
If this production can be faulted, it's for a curiously tame rendering of that world. It's not so bad that the violence is not very violent (there's knife work but no blood, stranglings are quick and relatively painless). But the sex — and surely this is the nub of it for those famously repressed Victorians — is lukewarm at best.
Some productions have taken Jekyll into a dark world of bondage and creepy sex. Any lasciviousness here is implied. A roomful of hookers with nary a cleavage shot? Not even a spiked heel? Streetwalkers in comfortable shoes?
Nobody's saying it has to be leather and S&M, but there's not even any naughty lingerie. Lucy's outfit makes her look like Heidi. In her bedroom, when Hyde kisses her passionately, the scene quickly fades to black.
It's an impressive, entertaining show. We only wish it were trashier.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.