That pesky Mr. Hyde has a tendency to pop up at the most inopportune times — much to Dr. Jekyll’s chagrin.
And that’s what we’re waiting for, of course, in “Jekyll & Hyde.” It’s the battle between these two halves, the wild sloshing of yin and yang, that has attracted audiences ever since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his 1886 novella.
It’s fun to see Bryce Moser handle the transitions in the solidly staged Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of the Frank Wildhorn musical version of “Jekyll & Hyde,” which continues through Saturday at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. As the title character(s), Moser — who alternates the role with Isaac Ellis — slips from the snooty and cerebral Henry Jekyll to the lustful and dangerous Edward Hyde with considerable dexterity. Moser’s stellar vocals and earnest acting on opening night helped anchor this show with assurance and style.
There were times watching the production, directed with finesse by Brent Moser, that I simply forgot I was watching performers aged 16-20 up there on stage. The commitment to the violent material and the overall murky, menacing tone of the show is impressive.
I’ll be blunt about what I think of the material itself: “Jekyll & Hyde” is not one of my favorites. Wildhorn’s score, stuffed full of dreary and over-the-top ballads, is a relentless conveyer belt of sappiness. The musical’s best-known song, “This is the Moment,” is rousing enough, I suppose — if you look past the eye-rolling number of key changes — but many of the other songs are decidedly second-tier. Leslie Bricusse’s book, likewise, chugs along with the finesse of a melodramatic choo-choo.
But that didn’t keep me from appreciating the cast and the production.
One performance stood out for me more than any other: Ryan Torres as Utterson, the old family friend who tries to counsel the increasingly rattled Jekyll as the doctor embarks on his dangerous experiment to separate good from evil in the human psyche. (He alternates the role with Justin Missakian.) Torres is so convincing as a dignified older gentleman that I’m sure many people simply won’t believe he’s a Clovis High School student. (I raved about him a few months ago for his performance in Fresno State’s “Assassins.”) With his rich voice, impeccable timing, sturdy stage presence and ability to connect emotionally with an audience, I’m convinced I’m looking at a major talent here.
Amber Lewis makes a charming Emma, Jekyll’s genteel fiancee. (Haylee Cotta alternates the role.) Her character’s unconditional acceptance of Jekyll’s eccentricities is sweet, even when his “good” side starts getting cranky. While the writing in the show sometimes strains emotional credibility, Lewis is able to convey a believable sense of steadfastness. Her vocals are nice, too, and she delivers a charming and endearing rendition of “Once Upon a Dream.”
Sarah Waxman, who plays the other major female role, the good-hearted prostitute Lucy, has some nice emotional moments as well. (She alternates the role with Catriona Fray.) A key to a successful production of this play is capturing the bad-boy sexual appeal of Hyde in a way that appeals to the romantic leanings of the audience, and Waxman has terrific chemistry with Bryce Moser in this regard.
Among the rest of the cast, Gian Console is a standout as Simon Stride, the secretary of the hospital board that denies Jekyll funding. Director Brent Moser deftly uses his large ensemble to play up the societal woes of London during Victorian times; the second-act opener, “Murder, Murder,” is a rousing affair, with Julie Lucido’s choreography capturing a sense of menace and tension.
Technically speaking, this “Jekyll & Hyde” has some solid strengths. Amber Creager’s period costumes are nicely done. And Charles Ottavio Sasso chalks up another CMT win for improved sound design. I never had a problem hearing soloists or the ensemble over the recorded music, and the balance from my seat was impeccable.
But I also have two significant criticisms. The first is Matt McGee’s scenic design. I like the surreal feel of the off-kilter windows and descending lanterns that dominate the upper part of the stage. But the main set piece — a non-realistic depiction of the London skyline — is a miss. The shapes feel too organic and the sensibility of the design too rounded and diffuse. I also don’t like the use of the space in terms of proportion and scale. The stage feels flattened and cramped, and the raised platform in the center feels confining, especially in the party scene with a large number of cast members corralled within its narrow parameters.
I’m also mixed on Madi Spate’s lighting design. On the plus side, it’s spectacularly moody, and there are some striking moments in terms of creating gritty atmosphere. (Hyde is often bathed in a blood-red pool of light, which is highly effective.) My criticism has to do with CMT’s impressive moving lights. Yes, it’s quite something to watch those lights swoop around before locking in on a fixed point, but I think Spate overuses the effect, which decreases the artistic impact. Plus, those lights often seem to move too slowly and imprecisely, which creates an overall effect that seems both skittish and sluggish.
Still, I have to give major credit to Spate and director Brent Moser for crafting a cheerfully eerie sensibility for the production. Once again, CMT has taken on an ambitious project and given fans of the material something to savor. I might be “split” on “Jekyll & Hyde” as a musical, but this production is a bloody good time.