Friday, December 7, 2012
Theater review: Jekyll & Hyde in Dallas is superior to original production
The star of the evening was easily Tony Award nominee Constantine Maroulis (formerly on American Idol) as Jekyll and Hyde.
DALLAS Frank Wildhorn is sort of the Lindsay Lohan or any Kardashian within the Broadway world. His musical scores receive hardly, if any praise from the Gotham critics or from the purists of Broadway who relish in making snarky, bitchy comments that he is devoid of any talent in composing a musical score. The New York press salivates when a Wildhorn musical is brought to the Great White Way.
Like sharks craving flesh, the Broadway press circle around Wildhorn, patiently waiting for opening night. When his show opens, with glistening steel teeth these sharks of print viciously tear into his score, and the book and lyrics if he also did those, as though it was a floating carcass. They gut, shred, and slash away with some of the most odious, contemptible reviews that would make anyone take to the bottle or engulf an endless supply of Oxycodone and Vicodin.
Take his last musical, Bonnie and Clyde, which opened on Broadway in 2011. The musical was hacked to bits by the critics and lasted for only 36 performances. Even with the negative reviews, Wildhorn did receive a Tony Award nomination for his score. In that same year, Wildhorn also composed the score for another musical, Wonderland, which opened at the Marquis Theatre. Based on the beloved tale of Alice in Wonderland, it too was met with horrendous reviews. It shuttered after just 33 performances.
From the Wildhorn catalogue, I have seen on Broadway his productions of Dracula the Musical, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War, and Jekyll & Hyde. The latter three their national tours as well.
Out of those four, Dracula was the worst by far. It opened in 2004 and held on for dear life at the Belasco Theatre for 157 performances.
My guest and I sat six rows from the orchestra, and at intermission many of the seats around us were left empty. One couple in our row left when the second act opening song started. To put it bluntly, it was a train wreck of a show. The score was DOA, resembling one of those drained corpses that Dracula left in his path after he drained all the life out of it. Meanwhile, the book was ill conceived, bland and mediocre. I felt so bad for its two stars, Melissa Errico and Tom Hewitt. I've seen them do brilliant work in other shows but here they could not overcome the disastrous material.
Wildhorn's The Civil War I saw at Broadway's St. James in 1999, then later on in its national tour at the Dallas Summer Musicals.
Wildhorn earned Tony nods for this show for Best Musical and Best Score. I actually very much enjoyed the blue grass/gospel/country infused score, but the book was a hodgepodge of baffling structure that was practically non-existent. This Wildhorn flop crawled to a final tally of 61 performances.
The Scarlet Pimpernel had loads of backstage dramas that kept the New York theater gossip rags drooling with daily updates of what was occurring at the Minskoff Theatre where it was playing (later moving to the Neil Simon Theatre). This is the only musical that had three different versions created for Broadway! Wildhorn and the other creators kept working and retooling over and over again even after the musical's first opening night. This is unheard of for Broadway. Once a show opens it is "locked down" (a term in theater meaning the show is set). But instead they would reconstruct a new version of the Pimpernel, and actually reopened it two more times, only to get slapped hard in the face by the critics. So they again went back to the drawing board. I saw it at the Minskoff and I honestly don't know if I saw version 2.0 or 3.0! I also saw the national tour which was yet again retooled.
This musical was Wildhorn's second biggest hit, and in the total of all three versions it reached to 772 performances. It would also receive several Tony nominations including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. The score for me was really pleasurable and chock full of solid, melodic songs that worked quite well around the uneven, soggy book.
Wildhorn's greatest success on Broadway is Jekyll & Hyde. Now, this musical has a fond place in my theatrical viewing background. In a sweet twist of fate, I was able to catch the pre-Broadway tour at the Dallas Summer Musicals in 1995. They were still reconstructing and changing the musical after every performance. I went back four nights in a row and found it deliciously exciting to see what was new, what had changed, and what was left, and to see how original stars Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder handled the endless changes with new songs and book scenes night after night at The Music Hall. This was like a drug to a musical theater addict such as myself to witness each night.
I would see the final product on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre in 1998. And man did it feed my addiction to see once more how much Wildhorn and the creators had drastically changed what I saw on its out of town tryout! Even with its lackluster reviews by the New York critics, the musical became a cult hit with a massive fan base. It played for 1543 performances. I consider this Wildhorn's best score and musical for that matter from his catalogue. It would not earn a Tony nomination for Best Score or Musical. But Wildhorn had the last laugh, for this production would become the longest running show in the history of the Plymouth Theatre. It would also go on to recoup close to 75% of its original $7 million investment.
The only black eye in this Wildhorn vehicle was the decision to use TV star David Hasselhoff to star in the title role during the Broadway run. In 2000 they videotaped the show for purchase, where your ears bled from hearing the Hoff vocally destroy the score.
Wildhorn and Steve Cuden, who wrote the original lyrics, started to work on this musical based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1980s. But it could never get enough financial backing to make it to Broadway. In 1990 it was re-written with Leslie Bricusse penning the lyrics, premiering at the Alley Theater in 1990. It would be worked on again for the 1995-96 out of town try out tour, which is the one I saw.
Now it has come full circle. Once again Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde has been launched as a pre-Broadway national tour. It travels for 25 weeks around the nation until it plants itself at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broadway for an April 2013 opening.
So have they once again rebuilt, reconstructed, and retooled a new version?
Within the first few minutes, my musical theater addiction was fed a neverending wave of scintillating creativity as it was very clear the book and score were once again reconstructed and changed. Some numbers were cut from the Broadway version. The orchestrations for many of the numbers had been given a vibrant, lush new coat of musicality. Tempos and the arrangements were changed for many of the solos, and company numbers like "Murder" and "Façade." Some songs were cloaked in fresh chamber music orchestrations while others were layered in a more rocker vibe. I thoroughly enjoyed much more the new versions of "Murder" and "Façade". Originally, "Murder" came off a bit melodramatic, but now it was darker with a less in your face approach with the orchestrations. "Façade" also was much cleaner and with its dazzling new staging, it gave the song much more grounded subtext than the original.
Lucy's first number, "Good N Evil," which never worked in the original, was replaced with a number that was done during the try out run, "Bring on the Men." Act Two's "Obsession" had been tweaked to become "Reflections" for Hyde. Emma's solo "Sympathy, Tenderness" had now been bumped up into the first act and then given a reprise in the second act.
The book was dusted off and now had a firmer grasp for the songs to hold on to. There was this layer of erotic sensuality that the original barely scratched. The new book did not shy away from this whatsoever. The violence and danger also had been pumped up, giving the piece a good dose of bone chilling thrills.
Director Jeff Calhoun's direction was sublime. You could clearly see that he had taken each scene and musical number, dissected it, peeled it apart, and then reconstructed a much bolder, sensual, darker version of Wildhorn's work. Scenes now had cleaner transitions. The subtext ebbed so much clearer than the original. Calhoun's staging and blocking cleaned up the book a lot, making scenes have much more purpose and dramatic strength.
Several musical numbers now worked better than the original. Take for example, the aforementioned "Façade." Instead of the company simply singing and walking around like the original, Calhoun choreographed and staged the Board of Governors getting dressed in their elegant costumes, having their maids and butlers dress them, all the while preening in the mirrors like prude peacocks. Here they sang, commenting on how society sees themselves and each other, while hiding what lurks within them and dressing in what society expects them to look like.
Originally, "Bring on the Men," Lucy's number, took place at the Red Rat, a bar/brothel that contained a mini-proscenium stage. Calhoun has changed the name of this den of inequity to the Spider's Web (which is also the name of the owner and pimp), and on stage were an array of ropes resembling a spider's web. Dead center on a waist high mini-cube set piece was where Lucy sang, looking like a queen spider flinging her deathly web strings, seducing her victims. That's just two examples among a potpourri of new visions that this director achieved in his vision of brilliant creativity.
There was the staging for one number from the original 1995 tryout that I so wish had been inserted back.
This occurred during the solo, "A New Life." For three performances, you saw the following: Lucy sang this power ballad from her room in a hotel (or was it a nunnery, I forget) where Jekyll placed her to keep her safe from Hyde. The set was blinding white -- white walls, bed, floor, sheets, etc. There was a simple cross hanging on the wall. As the song kept climbing up the crescendos, the lighting around Lucy (Linda Eder) grew brighter and brighter. When she finished the song, thunder effects crashed, rapid blackouts, and out of nowhere Hyde appeared! When he killed her, he slashed her throat and blood gushed and splattered against the white walls, sheets, etc. Sure, it was graphic but what a frightening image it created. Sadly on the fourth night, all that was cut out.
The advancement of technology in stage craft has become a treasure trove for scenic and lighting designers to create amazing new sets, lighting and special effects that could not have been done five to ten years ago. This Jekyll & Hyde stripped away all previous designs and created a spectacular, haunting and magnificent new concept in scenic and lighting.
Tony Ost's scenic design contained three major, tall, massive wall units that moves and glided over the stage to create everything from the Spider Web brothel/bar, to its dressing room, other bedrooms, mansions, an insane asylum, a ballroom, Jekyll's lab, the streets of London and even a church. The walls contained windows where light poured out and had various set pieces attached to them. The center wall even flipped over! Ost also had various single wall units that flew in from the fly rails. But it was the design of Jekyll's lab where Ost really went all out. I won't reveal what he has created; you just have to see it to believe.
On all these walls, fly rail, back wall, and even the scrims, Daniel Brodie's projection designs were splashed across them, achieving incredibly awesome, eye popping magic. He created projections that included rich textures for wall papers or portraits of the Board of Governors, rain, and even blood dripping all over the walls. For Jekyll's voiceovers, as he dictates in his diary, Brodie had the cursive words flash across the walls!
Jeff Croitter's lighting design was drenched in blood reds, glaring purples, neon greens and other rich colors. His use of unique gobos and specials were also used to full effect on the stage. The edges of the three large wall units and the proscenium also had lighting spewing out in vivid blues and harsh reds. The same went for the lighting that poured out of the windows.
Special kudos must also go to Sound Designer Ken Travis. He created eerie, frightening sound effects for the lab, as well as for rain, thunder, and even the sound of bones crackling!
There were three scenes in particular where the combination of set, light, sound and projections created magnificent feast for the eyes. One was in Lucy's bedroom. At first we heard loud, pouring rain with ear-splitting thunder; projected on her bedroom window was the rain! But when Lucy closed the window, the sound effects became muffled, like it would actually sound hearing rain outside. When the window burst open later on, the rain and thunder sound effects once again were pumped up.
But the best was the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde and the song "Confrontation," sung as a duet between Jekyll & Hyde. What these designers created and designed in this scene was phenomenal! The technology now available enabled the audience to finally see what you really wanted to see in those two numbers, and that could not be done in 1995. It was a jaw-popping, fantastic design that had the audience gasp. I will not spoil what they created here. You need to see it, for it was astounding!
Ost also designed the gorgeous costumes. You could see major research was done to achieve the look of 19th century London.
Elegant long coal black coats, vests, ruffled collars, and top hats for the men. I particularly liked what he designed for the four men who made up the Board of Governors. The women's costumes were an array of costly fabrics in a sea of bright hues and patterns. Tassels, jewels, and trains adorned them. They even had those big bustles! Each costume was finished with hats, gloves, and jewelry.
The cast for this tour was much smaller in numbers than the original and its tour, but they still delivered the goods in their performances. Some of the standouts included Dana Costello as Nellie; Jason Wooten as Simon Stride; Richard White as Sir Danvers Carew; and Laird Mackintosh as John Utterson. These performers all delivered impeccable performances.
The five thespians that made up the Board of Governors were perfection, giving their characterizations a snooty, holier than thou attitude as rich, entitled citizens who care nothing for the poor. Brian Gallagher gave Lord Savage this aura of spoiled rich playboy with a drinking problem. David Benoit (who sort of looked like Uncle Fester) had a rich, bass voice that gave his portrayal of the Bishop of Basingstoke the right strokes of a man of cloth who has a darker side to him. Benoit also switched gears to do great work as Spider. As Sir Archibald Proops, Mel Johnson, Jr. was costumed as a rich foreigner but also looked at society with a pinched nose in the air.
Aaron Ramey was General Lord Glossop, costumed in a beautiful, sleek military costume. Ramey had a metal contraption attached to his leg & walked with a cane, with a wild wig design to top off his creation of a bombastic general. As the lone female on the board, Blair Ross portrayed Lady Beconsfield, a rich woman who gossips about everyone. She nailed down the characterization of this self indulgent society witch who flicks off back handed compliments.
Mark my words: I predict Teal Wicks will become a shining new Broadway star in her near future. Her performance as Emma Carew was a miraculous discovery Tuesday evening. She uncovered incredibly deep, powerful emotional subtext within her characterization that I have never seen before in any actress who has tackled this role. The range of a woman so in love, but deeply conflicted on her fiancée's behavior, bled through her acting craft. She possessed a powerful soprano voice that floated upon a controlled vibrato. Her rendition of "Once Upon a Dream" was deeply moving. Instead of just going for the money notes, she used each lyric like it was a tear in her heart. She dug deep into this woman's pain and this song greatly showed her soul. It was haunting beyond words. In her duet with Lucy (Deborah Cox), Wicks actually outshone and out sang Cox.
It was Wicks' soprano voice that reached the higher notes with a glorious belt but then sustained the final note to the very end, while Cox unexpectedly had cut off. No disrespect to Cox, but Wicks gripped the lyrics of this duet with her heart and sang with full forte and vocal strength.
Cox does not have a vast background in musical theater. And in this duet it showed because Wicks so overshadowed her in both vocals and acting choices for this very well known duet. Wicks was wrapped in radiant stage presence, and with all these talents, she delivered a marvelous performance that can only lead her to bigger things down the road.
Personally, one of the hardest tasks that a theater critic has to juggle with is not trying to compare one performance to another. But when you see the original performer create the role, it is just impossible not to compare them.
So let's get the big, pink elephant in the room out of the way, as the saying goes. You have to accept the fact that Cox did not have the singing voice of Linda Eder, who originated the role of Lucy.
Wildhorn (like Andrew Lloyd Webber did for Sarah Brightman's Christine in Phantom of the Opera) specifically composed Lucy's songs to fit Eder's exquisite, out of this world soprano voice encased with endless octaves. At the time of creating the score, Wildhorn and Eder were married in real life.
Tragically, Cox did not have that kind of a voice. She has a vast and successful background as a recording artist and has had major hits in dance music, R&B, and soul. Her only Broadway credit was Elton John's Aida (replacing Toni Braxton). It breaks my heart to say this, but she struggled a lot within the big power ballads composed for Lucy. Maybe she had vocal fatigue Tuesday evening. But she just did not belt full out where it was musically written in the score for the majority of the evening. She did a few times, but instead of sustaining the long notes she cut them. It could be just me but I felt that several measures of "A New Life" were cut at the end due to Cox's inability to hold those notes as Eder did in the original. Before you start to shoot off on face book at me, I still VERY much enjoyed Cox's work in her creation of Lucy. She did sing beautifully, but it was just a softer range that lacked that grand, soaring Broadway sound belt. She finally hit vocal gold in "A New Life," except for the ending. It didn't help that she dropped her British (or was it Cockney?) accent when she sang her songs. Finally, because of her vocal background, in both "Someone Like You" and "A New Life", she added these vocal riffs ala Mariah Carey that was so out of character for Lucy. While her music fans must have loved that touch, it
didn't fit within the Wildhorn score.
Nonetheless, she did pull out some vocal finesse in most of "Someone Like You" and "A New Life/"
She was stellar in her first number "Bring on the Men." For that song she did belt full out to the very end. I so, so, so wished she did that with her other songs.
Cox vocally glowed beautifully in "Sympathy, Tenderness." Her acting craft was quite strong. You could see she was discovering what made Lucy tick as the evening progressed. Her best scene work was with her co-star Constantine Maroulis.
Cox delivered a terrific, very satisfying performance. She was met with thunderous applause from the audience Tuesday evening, and well deserved. I did very much enjoy her performance but there were elements that were missed that I hope, as she continues on with the show, she fully explores, both vocally and emotionally.
The star of the evening was easily Tony Award nominee Constantine Maroulis as Jekyll and Hyde. Forget all that American Idol background.
Maroulis has a very long, professional background in musical theater (he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Boston Conservatory).
He originated the role of "Drew" in the Broadway smash hit Rock of Ages, which earned him a Tony award nomination. He in fact is the ONLY American Idol star to receive a Tony nod! I saw the national tour of ROA and he was superb and a great surprise. But with J&H, he tore down the walls of what some may see him as only a rock star.
Maroulis intertwined the conflicts of Hyde's evilness and Jekyll's quiet nature with superlative results. He avoided the "hair tossing" of past actors to create these dual roles. He also did not drop his voice to a low bass for Hyde. Instead, he transformed Hyde into a sensual, erotic, demonic creature that has no soul whatsoever. He used his body to metamorphose from a well-educated English man into a slithering, animalistic, licentious, dark lord of the night. With his impeccable diction, As Jekyll, he speaks a proper English dialect with soft tones. But for Hyde his voice turned into a lustful, lascivious, evil tone that sent chills down your spine.
The acting choices that Maroulis made were the heart and soul of his characterization. You clearly saw that he stripped every lyric to find its subtext, resulting in a fully more fleshed out, complex performance than past actors in the role. He showed great love and compassion for Emma, but then as Hyde he showed blood-curdling evilness in his treatment of Lucy. Maroulis did extraordinary, resplendent work as an actor in this role. He created his own vision of this role and it was breathtaking to observe. Maroulis reached glorious artistry in the craft of acting with his textured layers of subtext that flowed evenly from both Jekyll and Hyde.
Vocally, well, if you heard Maroulis sing before, you already know he sang flawlessly in every song. I could sense that many in the audience were quite surprised how this insanely gifted artist could switch his voice from hard rock into pure Broadway vocals. Every song he sang was stellar. And that octave range! That is where I was floored. His rendition of "This is the Moment" was the show stopper number of the entire evening. As this well known ballad transgressed into a higher octave, Maroulis matched it perfectly. BUT, when he held that final note (which has to be a High A Tenor note), Maroulis actually jumped up one more octave and sustained the note to the final end -- utterly incredible!
Other major vocal standouts within his work included the solos "Alive," "Transformation," and the magnificent "Confrontation."
Wait till you see what he did with those numbers vocally! Maroulis threw in some rock overtones for Hyde's voice, and surprise, they actually worked superbly within the score. They didn't sound out of place but instead gave Hyde another layer of delicious subtext for Maroulis to play with.
The chemistry that Maroulis had with his leading ladies was vividly strong. With Teal Wicks (Emma), he was passionate, romantic, and showed great love for her. But with Cox (Lucy) as Hyde, he was nasty, dominating, and immoral. Cox and Maroulis both sizzled with erotic sensuality. One minute he was lusting all over her body, then in a splitsecond he turned sadomasochistic.
Maroulis was a revelation in his dual role as Jekyll and Hyde. This is a daunting role to tackle. He only leaves the stage a few times, and he has to carry the show on his shoulders, and he succeeds with outstanding results. He will truly surprise many with this superior performance. Maroulis's work here could very well earn him a second Tony Award nomination.
After seeing the original out of town tryout run, the original Broadway version, and then the national tour of the Broadway production, I can say without hestiation that this new, polished, redefined, reconstructed version of Jekyll & Hyde surpassed all of them.
The direction was finely detailed, the production design was out of this world stunning, the cast shined brightly, especially for its leading man, Maroulis.
If you have seen Jekyll & Hyde the musical before, you have NEVER seen it done like this ... ever! Nothing feeds my palette more than when creators take musicals
that have been done before, then reconstruct and mold them into a whole new vision, concept, subtext, and a richer emotional production than before. That is what this new Jekyll & Hyde is. Don't let this very rare opportunity pass you by.
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