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Love, madness take center stage in ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

Public pretense, inner darkness and love meet up in “Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical,” playing at the Randall Theatre in Medford.

Loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the 1990 musical adaptation is a pop rock melodrama of virtue and evil with a goodly measure of extravagant Gothic horror.

Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Robin Downward, is physician to the violent ward at a London insane asylum, Jekyll’s father among those committed. Jekyll is driven to heal those locked within their minds and the restraints of the hospital and has concocted a chemical cure that needs to be tested on humans. Forbidden to do so by the hospital board, Jekyll tests the cure on himself and releases his inner demons.

Robin Downward plays the two aspects of Dr. Henry Jekyll, who is transformed into consummate evil as Edward Hyde. As Jekyll’s descent into violent madness progresses, Downward is increasingly disheveled, hollow-eyed and barely able to control his mind and actions. He actually seems to be physically larger as he loses his sanity. Downward’s over-the-top performance reflects the Gothic horror genre we recognize from early cinematic versions of the novels of Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley.

Two women frame the dual personalities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and both love the man and fear the monster he becomes. Grace Peets as Emma Carew is beautiful and loyal and loving, but confused and concerned as her fiancé, Henry, is increasingly estranged and distanced from her by madness. Deborah Downward as Lucy Harris is busty and brash, a bordello worker who strives to be acknowledged as a person.

Identity has a big role in “Jekyll & Hyde,” and the true nature of the characters is revealed in whispers and asides, each couple warning and confiding. The stock male characters, Buzz London as bishop, Heiland Hoff as General Glossop, Elliot Anderson as Lord Savage and others, stand in public judgment yet seek private delight in a brothel. This hypocrisy, the public face and private corruption, is central to the musical.

Perhaps the character who bears the greatest sin is Simon Stride, played by Nicholas Jules Hewitt. Hewitt is smooth and smarmy, a perfect Simon Stride, the man who by day is a self-important secretary to the hospital board and by night a vicious pimp. Hewitt plays Stride’s bitter, virulent being really well until Hyde emerges to snap Stride’s neck like a twig, the sound of vertebrae cracking echoing through the theater.

Identity plays out through the musical sets, including Robin Downward and Grace Peet singing “Take Me As I Am” in the roles of Henry and Grace. Deborah Downward similarly reveals her vocal strength in the pain of “No One Knows Who I Am,” “Someone Like Me” and “A New Life.” Both Grace and Deborah play their roles straight, as the two women, above all, are true to themselves and do not dissemble.

The best part of “Jekyll & Hyde,” directed by Livia Genise with choreography by Rebecca Campbell, is the ensemble scenes, where the full cast struts its stuff, stamping the boards in unison. In “Façadem” we are faced with the hypocrisy and pretense of the well-meaning wealthy. “Bring on the Men” has all the tarts slapping their butts and kicking their heels as they perform acrobatics with chairs; how they do so in camisoles, corsets, ribbons and petticoats is a marvel to see. “Murder, Murder” is wonderfully nightmarish (and correctly pronounced) as London cringes in fear of a murderer on the loose, the tabloids shouting, the cast frantically milling about.

The Gothic horror genre is characterized by nightmarish and supernatural elements, and Randall Theatre’s “Jekyll & Hyde” has plenty of both. The small, intimate theater is ideally suited for an immersive experience that sets this expectation and delivers. Lighting is dim, mists and fog obscure the truth and wraiths keen and moan. The cast uses the full range of space in their performance, disappearing into downstairs rooms, characters in contrast on opposing risers, proclaiming from the back of the house, entering and exiting through the audience.

The Randall Theatre is a little black box, a community theater with a loyal following who vie for the best seat in the house, a big soft couch raffled off at the start of every show. Win that raffle and you get free concessions and a complimentary bottle of wine.

“Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical” continues in the Randall through April 29, with a possible extension to May 6. Reserve tickets are $18 to $22, pay what you will on Thursdays. All of the 2018 Randall performances are scheduled at the Medford location, 10 E. Third St. For more information and tickets, call the box office at 541-632-3258 or see www.randalltheatre.com.

Freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Robin Downward plays the central roles of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde in Randall Theatre’s “Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical.”