The HCC production of “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical”: a review

Ouch.

I learned last night that actors/actresses singing in key is a secondary or tertiary requirement to some directors when putting on a musical. Kayla Whisman was the very young student director of “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical” at Harford Community College’s Chesapeake Theater, and the verdict is not yet in as to its calibur being something expected from a high school or a college. But, goddamit, they tried and had fun. Like a good coach tells his little league team: “Good effort out there, guys!” The difference is none of the parents are asked to pay $15 dollars to watch a little league baseball game.

First, the good. Elements were stunning for a college level production–no doubt. Costume design (Rebecca Eastman), set design (Samina Veith), lighting design (Chris Allen), and general enthusiasm from the entire ensemble kept this ship afloat. The rest needs to be seen to be believed. It must be experienced to be understood. But after you read this, you won’t.

Part of that is, honestly, the source material — the script’s quality. Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden wrote the music/lyrics in the late ’80s. It premiered in 1990 and would not reach Broadway until 1997. There were a lot of funding issues, but I do not have to wonder why. It ran roughly 3 years, lost money in the end—more than $1.5 million—and lacked any stellar reviews. Where it has played since then has seen the script further deteriorate, with many different script variations at the director’s behest; changes in monologues, additions or ommissions of characters, and a general over-reaching of what artistic license should be–disrespecting the source material and making alterations beyond recognition. This particular production, I was told by one of its players after the show, was an assemblage of several other productions “best parts and scenes.” Take that as you may.

While a little change in any long running play or musical can be refreshing and inspiring here or there, you’ll likely never see “Jekyll & Hyde” the same way twice, if you can stomach going more than once. Had I not been with a group, I would have likely left at intermission, marking the first time I would have ever left a theater without watching the entire show.

At my particular show at the Chesapeake theater, fighting against the spoken scenes at every turn was the musical score itself–the accompaniment. There was little time in Jekyll/Hyde where there was silence from pre-recorded MIDI files with digital bells, horns, tympani drums, and strings; stunting the scenes’ natural rhythms and emotions. The snythesized and outdated recordings were distracting. When the audience was infrequently blessed with no music stomping over a scene’s dialogue, I found those scenes to be the most believable and effective and natural. It was like I was watching a play. The actors could actually act and not be rushed by the timing of when the next song starts. All of that music “hams” it up dramtically; it’s hard to not find it over-the-top and clownish. People around me laughed on and off from beginning to end, all unintentionally. When actors speak with music in the background, there is no room to falter in one’s deliveries; there is a cue to hit when the singing commenses again, and this makes for a sometimes late entry into a song, or worse, the actors complete their dialogue volley several seconds before the music and singing is to pick back up, leading to an awkward pause or freeze. The play stalls, and it’s obvious: the entire building is waiting for the music to kick in.

Per usual with pre-recorded anything, the mix at the Chesapeake Theater was too loud. I was in the the very front row, center in fact, and could hardly decipher some of the words ten feet from me, in both lyrically and spoken. Everyone seemed to have microphones attached to their heads, but often only the lead roles mics were on and mixed properly. My one wish for Jekyll/Hyde is to only play music just before a song begins. Allow the rest to breathe! If the “fathers” of this musical had any faith in the quality of the spoken lines in the script, there would be no need to cover them with brass, tubas and french horns. Creating “over-ambiance” detracts from the intended emotional response. Sometimes (actually often if you’ve ever seen any other musical) less is more. And the Jekyll/Hyde I saw at HCC needed a great deal more.

Very young twenty-something director, Miss Kayla Whisman, came out before the show with a smiley face balloon tied to her wrist and, with little regard for professionalism, bumbled over an introduction. She wanted affectionately to welcome us, and said there would be “the use of blood in the production tonight.” She was “sorry if that makes people uncomfortable or offended,” interspersed with “uhs” and “ums”, ending with something like “Okay! Enjoy the show, guys!”  Something to that affect, but those were not her exact words. I saw no blood, bytheway. Actually that is a lie; because I was in the very front and center row I accidently saw what seemed to be a possible blood capsule drip one time out of a dead man’s mouth who died on the very, very edge of the stage 8-feet from my seat. How was anyone else supposed to see?

The director came out once more, in the middle of the second act when the lights came up in the house, to apologize for technical difficulties, but the sound system stopped working and they had to fix it. It made sense. The previous song before this announcement was a capella; also, without the slightest sense of melody or key. I will give her credit for being completely alone on stage and really having some courage to do it. Whatever else I may say, know I respect thesbian courage without equivocation. I digress, I knew something was wrong since I was not being aurally pummeled with waves of MIDI piano and cymbal crashes. When this “something” went right with the sound, I knew “something went wrong” with the sound system.

I think, when it’s all said and done, these young actors and actresses did their best with what they were given; in their defense, even with the best vocalist on the planet, “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical” is not well written, lyrically, artistically, dramatically, or with intriguing character arcs or development. There was but one catchy song in the first act, the rest was hackneyed and borrowed and butchered from other superior musical’s verses and choruses of the past. Again, I am addressing the original writers of this play. The best player was Dr. Jekyll’s love interest and finace who could both act and sing beautifully. Had I been her, I would have been incredibly frustrated. The lead actor, Jekyll, apparently acting for seven years according to the play bill, couldn’t maintain pitch to save his life. Ironically, he did die in the end. I guess he can’t sing to save his life. However, he made up for it by putting on an incredible performance and showing real torment and sadness. So long as he never stars in a musical, I think he has real promise if he continues with his career at Towson university as he intends. Good luck to him.

The one positive thing to come out of the night was the reminder of how much I love the time period “Jekyll & Hyde the Musical” is set in. If nothing else, it made me want to watch “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, and “From Hell.” Additionally, watching this production has given me the reassurance that I could write a gothic musical and it wouldn’t be half bad. Thank you, Frank Wildhorn. My rendition of “Sherlock Holmes the Musical” should be an instant classic. Jokes aside, however, some classic literature should probably not be on stage; Sherlock Holmes and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” included.

To be nice about it; between 8:10 and 10:40 p.m. on November 10th, 2011 at The Chesapeake Theater in Harford County, Maryland, I was abused.

(* out of ****)

(Matt Lowder has been in two dramatic plays and two musicals since 2002. He has attended a dozen plays and musicals over the past decade by major companies, colleges, and high schools, including “Grease”, “Guys & Dolls”, “Sweeny Todd”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Sound of Music” and “Romeo & Juliet”. He has studied film, theater, and music theory since 2007.)

HCC site, touting evocative qualities — http://www.harfordneighbors.net/index.php?section=1&subtype=2&id=4920

For more info about this play — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jekyll_%26_Hyde_(musical)

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