The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the classic tale of one man's treacherous quest to unlock the secrets of the divided human psyche—is lately told by Musical Theatre Southwest in a production running until Oct. 22 at the African American Performing Arts Center (310 San Pedro NE). In this take on Frank Wildhorn's broadway adaptation, our local troupe belts out the challenging score with aplomb, amid a sparse stage that acutely draws attention to where the real drama happens—that is, in the interior spaces of man split in two.
“All human beings, when we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson in the original novel. And that notion is what viewers are asked to first—and most importantly—grapple with. The play opens with Dr. Jekyll—in song, as ever—tenderly in one-sided conversation with his father, who, though once a great man, is now diminished by madness. It is then, with great urgency that Jekyll petitions the hospital's board of directors (or whatever the term for “board of directors” was in Victorian England) to allow him to continue his research and permit him to begin testing a tonic he's devised on human subjects. Dr. Jekyll believes that this potion might eradicate the inherently evil part of mankind.
Denied by the hoity toity directors—who are the picture of morality when passing judgment on the doctor's work, but are less holy in their personal lives—Jekyll is driven by the conviction he has in his research to take the experiment to trial in the only way he can—by testing it on himself. The plot progresses quite slowly and we are nearly to intermission by the time the stage is set for the real action. As we all anticipate, the experiment goes horribly awry and Mr. Hyde, the picture of evil, is unleashed on London.
The cast of Jekyll & Hyde in this iteration of the stage play execute the task of a difficult score quite remarkably. The lead—played by Colin Burdge, is particularly adept at navigating the challenge. Burdge is tasked with playing two roles, really—the striving, obsessive Dr. Jekyll and the devil lurking inside, Edward Hyde. Burdge even pulls off a duet with himself—effectively changing the tone of his voice and his body language to assume both roles at once. The play reaches a frenzied climax in this moment when Jekyll and Hyde battle it out for supremacy, in a moment both anxiety-inducing and riveting. (This scene is also accompanied by a crafty bit of stage choreography, externalizing the battle quite smartly.)
Equal to Burdge's performance is that of Courtney Awe playing the part of Lucy Harris. Lucy is a down-on-her-luck prostitute with a heart of gold—amounting to a horribly written cliché in high heels. Yet, Harris manages to bring a little more depth to poor Lucy, and perhaps most importantly, perfect pitch. Awe's character possesses some of the best solos and accompanied pieces in the entirety of the show, requiring the ability to hit incredible high notes and sustain them with lungs of steel. The unfortunate object of Hyde's most pointed wrath, her sorrow only adds to the darkness that settles over the show like London fog.
That the play is dark is part of its appeal. Too many musicals I've seen trend toward the upbeat, and Jekyll & Hyde is, necessarily at its heart, brooding—though the grief is at times undercut by the campiness of some of the writing. I'm of two minds about this play—wowed by the cast's alacrity in performing the piece, and the agility of the whole thanks to the direction of Robb Anthony Sisneros, but also less than impressed by the initial pace and hackneyed quality of the script. Despite that, working with the text as well as any crew ever could, Southwest Musical Theatre's production of the play illuminates the core queries of the play wonderfully—with all the fun stage smoke you would expect. Enjoy Southwest Musical Theatre's perfect pitch Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 22. Tickets and more information available at musicaltheatresw.com.