Would you like a side of pseudo-profundity with your serving of lurid melodrama? If so, I have the theatrical repast for you: “Jekyll & Hyde,” the overheated and nuance-free musical by composer Frank Wildhorn and book writer/lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Running through Nov. 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, in a production directed by Jeff Calhoun, this blast of hyperventilating gothicism conveys visions of murder, squalid Victorian tenements, sadistic sex, corrupt clergymen and the stalking of a prostitute with a heart of gold. But grafted onto the penny-dreadful narrative is some slick philosophizing, pointing out, for instance, that hypocrisy runs rampant through civilization, and that good and evil war perpetually for the human soul.
The pairing of sensationalism and portentous glibness has never seemed to handicap “Jekyll & Hyde,” which has found international success since it originated as a concept album in 1990. Based on the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, the musical grew into a stage extravaganza that ran for more than 1,500 performances after opening on Broadway in 1997.
This new production stars Constantine Maroulis (“Rock of Ages,” TV’s “American Idol”) as alter-egos Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. The former is a bookish doctor who dreams of healing madmen and eliminating vice from society. When he wanders over the fine line separating idealism from hubris and attempts a groundbreaking scientific experiment on himself, Jekyll transforms into Hyde, a psychopath with the arrogance of a rock star and the leisure-time interests of Jack the Ripper.
Both figures look at home in the gloomy neo-Dickensian world that Calhoun’s creative team has conjured up. With dangling panels, metal shelves, stretches of grubby tile and building silhouettes tilted at sinister angles, scenic designer Tobin Ost evokes slums, mansions, crepuscular streets, a brothel and Dr. Jekyll’s steampunk laboratory. Projection designer Daniel Brodie plays a key role in this efficient scene-summoning, often plastering the dangling panels with wallpaper patterns or glimpses of public gathering spots (a foggy park, a train station, etc.)
Ost also designed the Victorian costumes, which, like the set, favor a chiaroscuro color scheme enlivened by the odd touch of blood red or poison green. The visuals are right in tune with Wildhorn’s brooding, emphatic and ominous rock-inflected score, known for such numbers as “Someone Like You” and “This Is the Moment.”
Calhoun’s cast has no trouble belting and power-crooning its way through the score. The R&B artist Deborah Cox brings a sultry, velvety sound to the vocal outpourings of Lucy, the plucky but vulnerable prostitute who slinks about in a corset and garters, captivating Hyde. Far different is Emma, Jekyll’s upper-class fiancee, who — in keeping with the musical’s obsession with obvious dichotomies — is Madonna to Lucy’s whore; saddled with this underdeveloped character, Teal Wicks at least gets to display her lustrous voice in a few poignant songs.
Maroulis does a creditable job tailoring voice and body language to his two contrasting characters, his fidgety mannerisms suggesting Jekyll’s weaselly personality at one moment, his swagger broadcasting Hyde’s fiendishness the next. His hair does some of the heavy lifting. When Maroulis sports a ponytail, he’s Jekyll, and when the scrunchy comes out, he’s Hyde. It’s a wonder this musical hasn’t worked out a product-placement deal with a line of retro shampoos.
Other up-to-speed acting turns in this production include David Benoit’s oily Bishop of Basingstoke; Brian Gallagher’s dissolute Lord Savage; and Laird Mackintosh’s clear-headed John Utterson, stalwart friend to Jekyll.
Some of these characters join with a small chorus in belting out “Façade,” one of several songs whose lyrics spell out and triple-underline the story’s subtext. “There are preachers who kill!/ There are killers who preach!” they sing. “Man is not one but two!/ He is evil and good!/ And he walks a fine line we’d all cross if we could!” Calhoun has opted to dress the chorus in “Downton Abbey”-style black-and-white servants’ garb: Sometimes, the chorus members dust the furniture or help major characters dress.
The conceit only serves to emphasize the musical’s coy interweaving of sermonizing and thrills. Nineteenth-century servants, after all, had the inside scoop on social hypocrisy — and who better to give us a voyeuristic peek at misbehavior, which is what we really want to see?
Wren is a freelance writer.
conceived for the stage by Steve Cuden and Frank Wildhorn; book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse; music by Wildhorn. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Ken Travis; hair and wig design, Charles G. LaPointe. With Richard White, Blair Ross, Mel Johnson Jr., Jason Wooten, Aaron Ramey, and others. About 2 hours, 20 minutes. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Nov. 25. Call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.