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The Doctor Sings

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde touched a collective nerve when it was first published in 1886. The provocative story of a scientist who unleashes the darkest parts of his nature by drinking an elixir spawned its first staged version the following year, and since then has been adapted for films, cartoons, and comic books. Its latest incarnation, Jekyll & Hyde: The Gothic Musical Thriller, playing through this weekend at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach, is a glorious Grand Guignol entertainment. Derivative and saddled with overproduced musical arrangements, the pop opera nonetheless is bewitching as a result of its splendid score and a relentlessly energetic cast.

Stevenson penned his horrific yarn about the archetypal struggle between decency and wickedness after it came to him during a nightmare. Because Stevenson's book lacked significant women characters, adapters have added them to spice up the brew. An understanding prostitute showed up in the first dramatic interpretation in 1887. In the 1932 film version, for which Fredric March won an Academy Award as Best Actor, the doctor-monster also acquired an upper-class fiancee. (Not surprisingly, the two female roles make it into the current musical, as reflections of the main man's duality and as vehicles for great songs.)

Leading men John Barrymore and Spencer Tracy grabbed hold of the two-pronged role in later movies. Boris Karloff starred in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. An animated Tweetie Bird turned into a nasty old fowl after drinking a magic potion, stopping Sylvester the cat in his tracks A until the potion wore off, of course. New York City's Ridiculous Theatrical Company romped through a camp version. John Malkovich takes his turn in the upcoming Mary Reilly, a film (based on the novel by Valerie Martin) seen from the point of view of the doctor's maid (played by Julia Roberts).

The narrative's passionate extremes struck composer Frank Wildhorn as perfect material for a musical in the late Seventies, when he was still in college. When a first collaboration with writer Steve Cuden didn't fly, Hollywood, Florida, native Wildhorn cranked up a songwriting career that yielded more than twenty gold and platinum hits, including Whitney Houston's 1988 smash "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" Then Leslie Bricusse, a show-biz vet from Britain who snared Oscars for his songs in the films Victor/Victoria and Doctor Dolittle, stepped in to write lyrics and book to accompany Wildhorn's music.

With a complete show in hand, Wildhorn threw his hit-making savvy into overdrive: An album released by RCA in 1990 A before the musical was even produced A featured Les Miserables star Colm Wilkinson (who has never been in the play) and Linda Eder (Wildhorn's long-time companion, who has sung and interpreted the star-making role of prostitute Lucy throughout the show's evolution). By the time J&H opened later that year at the Alley Theatre in Houston under the guiding hand of artistic director Gregory Boyd A the first musical and the wildest success in that theater's four-decade history A tunes from the show were already invading the pop charts and concert halls. Soon, whether they knew it or not, people were humming excerpts from the score: The 1992 Winter Olympics used "This Is the Moment," Jekyll's hymn to persevering against all odds, as its official theme; the Moody Blues recorded the same anthem; seventeen out of fifty contestants in the 1993 Miss America Pageant crooned J&H numbers during the talent competition; Liza Minnelli continues to perform Lucy's plea for "A New Life" in concert.

At Broadway's threshold, the show went into workshop in New York in 1992, until troubles with its producer killed the deal. Unwilling to concede defeat, Wildhorn and Boyd mounted a reworked production in January 1995, again in Houston. At the same time, an Atlantic Records double CD featuring 35 of more than 60 Wildhorn-Bricusse songs inspired by the apparently inexhaustible story line hit the ground running. That's two A count 'em, two A soundtracks out there in the marketplace, with a likely Broadway-cast recording joining them should the show finally reach the Great White Way. (Wildhorn predicts it will arrive there "next fall.") If all that exposure doesn't satiate you, access J&H info on the Internet (http://www.jekyllhyde.com) or e-mail fellow aficionados at JHsans@REEDYCREEK.STANFORD.EDU. (AND STEVENSON THOUGHT HE HAD REACHED THE MASSES WHEN HIS NOVELLA SOLD TENS OF THOUSANDS OF COPIES IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND AND THE U.S. MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO.)

AFTER SO MUCH HYPE, DOES THE MUSICAL DELIVER? YES. BUT NOT UNEQUIVOCALLY, BEGINNING WITH ITS MISLEADING SUBTITLE "GOTHIC MUSICAL THRILLER." BLATANT ABOUT WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, THE PRODUCTION ENGAGES US THROUGH DELICIOUSLY OVERWROUGHT MELODRAMA, NOT THROUGH SUSPENSE. SINCE MOST OF THE MINIMAL BOOK IS SET TO MUSIC ANYWAY, A MORE APT TAG WOULD BE "GOTHIC OPERETTA." THEN WE HAVE BRICUSSE'S LYRICS, WHICH SACRIFICE PRECISION FOR GENERIC SENTIMENTS, INSURING ALL-OCCASION CHART BUSTERS THAT DO NOT ALWAYS RELATE TO THE STORY AT HAND. IN CONTRAST, WILDHORN'S MELODIES ARE FAR FROM PEDESTRIAN A SO TUNEFUL THEY'RE BOUND TO CONVERT AT LEAST A FEW DIE-HARDS WHO NORMALLY CAN'T ABIDE POP MUSIC. YET THE ENTIRE SCORE IS OVERZEALOUSLY ARRANGED; BOTH THE ORCHESTRA AND THE SINGERS CRESCENDO WITHIN A FEW BARS OF ALMOST EVERY NUMBER. (THE LEAST OVERPRODUCED SONG ON THE ATLANTIC CD, LUCY'S HAUNTING "NO ONE KNOWS WHO I AM," UNFOLDS AGAINST A RESTRAINED BACKGROUND OF A PIANO AND A FEW STRINGS; UNFORTUNATELY, IT DOESN'T MAKE IT INTO THIS VERSION OF THE SHOW.)

FINALLY, DIRECTOR BOYD AND MUSICAL DIRECTOR JEREMY ROBERTS SET AN APPROPRIATELY SURLY, EVEN MACABRE, TONE, YET THEY HAVEN'T DECIDED JUST HOW CAMP THEY WANT CERTAIN PARTS OF THE PRODUCTION TO BE A ALL OF WHICH RESULTS IN INCONSISTENCIES. ACTOR ROBERT CUCCIOLI WRITHES IN FULL CAMP GLORY AS JEKYLL TURNS INTO HYDE AND BACK AGAIN; AS A SADISTIC HYDE, HE LOOKS LIKE A CROSS BETWEEN DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S ASSISTANT IGOR AND RADIO PERSONALITY HOWARD STERN (WHO SOME ALREADY CONSIDER THE EMBODIMENT OF EVIL). ON THE OTHER HAND, ACT TWO'S OPENING NUMBER, "MURDER, MURDER!" BEGS TO CROSS THE LINE INTO PARODY, PARTICULARLY WHEN A (FAKE!) DECAPITATED HEAD GETS TOSSED ACROSS THE STAGE, BUT THE NUMBER TAKES ITSELF TOO SERIOUSLY.

FLAWS AND ALL, HOWEVER, JEKYLL & HYDE SUCCEEDS CHIEFLY BECAUSE IT DOESN'T ATTEMPT TO BE MORE THAN IT ISo a florid popular stew with flashing lights, creepy atmosphere, and gorgeous stars performing stirring solos and duets. Cuccioli approaches his plum double-edged role with messianic fervor. Instead of portraying a do-gooder mistakenly seeking the antidote to human evil by indulging in that evil too intently, the actor depicts Jekyll as charismatic, megalomaniacal, and, finally, weak A addicted to the rush of becoming Hyde even as he's appalled by the character's criminality. Cuccioli belts out "This Is the Moment," then effectively snarls his way through Hyde's signature tune, "Alive!" And he shares a bare stage with Christiane Noll, as Jekyll's fiancee, during an emotional rendition of the duet "Take Me As I Am." In turn, Noll boasts a lovely voice and a self-possessed stage presence perfect for the perplexed but loyal Lisa.

Linda Eder's plush voice caught the world's attention during a twelve-week winning streak on television's Star Search. Since then, along with creating the role of J&H's Lucy, she's cut solo albums and played the cabaret circuit from Chicago to Los Angeles to much acclaim. The statuesque chanteuse makes an undeniable impression when she first appears on-stage to headline the cheeky "Bring On the Men," and she confirms rumors of her fabulous range, from lower-register growling to soaring on high, beginning with the plaintive "Someone Like You" and ending with the wistful "A New Life." As an actress, however, she proves a bit inhibited, although her understated style does provide counterpoint to Cuccioli's scenery chewing.

Other notables include Philip Hoffman as Jekyll's pragmatic friend Gabriel John Utterson, Nita Moore as Lucy's comrade Nellie, and Martin Van Treuren doubling up in another split role as the good Sir Danvers Carew and the smarmy Spider, Lucy and Nellie's pimp. Vince Mountain's two-tiered set and Howell Binkley's lighting (which vacillates between shadowy and stark) convey a gritty, early Industrial Revolution ambiance appropriate to Victorian London. Jekyll's underground laboratory, complete with fetuses floating in jars, evokes the nebulous zone between science and magic in which the doctor dwells. Jonathan Bixby provides the cast with layers of sumptuous Victorian-era costumes.

Jekyll & Hyde does not reinvent the musical wheel. In fact, it recycles aspects of previously proven shows, from the Bill Sikes-Nancy relationship in Lionel Bart's Oliver! to the smoky nineteenth-century milieu of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera to the multiple murders of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd. Yet it does so with memorable music and a talented cast who provide a highly entertaining evening of over-the-top theater.


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