This week, Seattle received touring companies of two shows currently playing on Broadway that were largely reviled by the critics, but nonetheless found success with audiences; Jekyll and Hyde and Footloose.
The first of these shows, Jekyll and Hyde, is playing at The Paramount Theatre through August 1st. Now I believe that it is a critic's responsibility to state any prejudices or opinions that he brings into the theater which may shape his view of a show. That said, I must mention I had seen a production of Jekyll and Hyde before and hated it. In 1995, Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre and Houston's Theater Under the Stars produced a pre-Broadway version of Jekyll and Hyde with Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder as the leads. Never before had I gone into the theater expecting to like something so much, only to leave so frustrated and disappointed. The production soured me to the point where I could not even bear to listen to any of the concept albums (which I had greatly enjoyed up to that point), and the mere thought of seeing it again made me shudder.
So you probably will understand why I was a little ... tentative ... about seeing another production of Jekyll and Hyde. Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered myself enjoying the show. It's still not a perfect show. Too many of the songs sound the same, as they are composed in the intense, multiple modulating style that has become composer Frank Wildhorn's trade mark. The lyrics, by Leslie Bricusse, too often sound like a freshman effort, rather than something written by the old master that he is. Leslie Bricusse is also credited with the book, which is the greatest weakness of the show. When I saw the production four years ago, my greatest complaint was with the lack of connective tissue linking the songs. The show is now roughly 50% fleshed out. While this is a great improvement, it still feels like there are scenes missing, particularly between Dr. Jekyll and his friend, Utterson (a part so poorly written that even a usually reliable and excellent performer such as James Clow can't do anything with it).
But the problems largely fade away while you are watching the show, thanks to the excellent trio of leads in the touring production. Chuck Wagner, who originated the dual parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its first production at Houston's Alley Theater, possesses one of the best baritone voices on Broadway. It's a remarkable and expressive instrument, capable of ringing the rafters, or being brought down to an intimate whisper (in the few moments that the score allows him to sing below forte). He also brings a much needed sense of humor to the parts, especially in his portrayal of Hyde.
Sharon Brown was astounding as the doomed prostitute Lucy. Since the part was written as a valentine for composer Frank Wildhorn's future wife, the character of Lucy gets the best songs and scenes, and Sharon blew away any memory of Linda Eder. She brought to the part a sense of fun and childlike hurt which was missing previously. She stopped the show with her first number, "Bring on the Men," which was added for the tour, and should be inserted immediately into the Broadway version. David Warren, who restaged Jekyll and Hyde for the tour, staged it as a gender reversed strip tease alla Dietrich (far surpassing anything seen in Victor/Victoria).
The real surprise of the evening was Andrea Rivette, who plays Jekyll's fiancÚ, Emma Carew. Her part is one of the hardest in the show, simply because there is not much for her to do. It's a very passive role, with very little substance. Andrea turned her part into a tour de force, and what a voice she has! I wish she and Sharon would record their version of "In his Eyes," for it is bound to be the definitive version. I suspect we will be seeing quite a bit more of her in the future.
NOTE: From everything I hear, this production of Jekyll and Hyde bears little resemblance to any previous production, including what is currently on Broadway. Director David Warren has reshaped, rethought, and restaged a great deal of the show. The sets are also newly redesigned for the tour. For a more detailed description of the changes, see my interview with Chuck Wagner.
While I honestly can't state that I understand the attachment that this show has to Jekkie's everywhere, (my taste in 'serial-killers-attacking-hypocrisy' shows being more along the lines of Sweeney Todd) I have to say that I will not be so quick to knock it in the future. While it is still a highly flawed piece, it can make for an enjoyable evening, especially when you have a trio of such talented actors in the leads.
Now, on to the second of the shows to hit Seattle, Footloose, which runs through August 15th at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, and never was that so true as with this show. Whoever designed the posters for Footloose should be strung up by his or her drawing hand (puce and lime green???) as the posters really are a nauseating turn off and played no small part in my not really being too excited about seeing the show.
Maybe the secret to seeing these shows is to go in with no expectations, because I have to honestly admit that Footloose is the most fun I have had in quite a while at the theater. No, it's not high art. No, it will never rank among the best shows ever to come out of Broadway. It's nothing more than a 'guilty pleasure' show that plays upon its nostalgia in the same manner as Grease and Bye Bye Birdie. But Footloose knows this, and doesn't try to be anything more than that. It's content with being a silly romp of a show, with moments of pure camp hilarity, such as when Ariel and her friends, Rusty, Urleen and Wendy Jo (played wonderfully by Stephanie St. James, Andrea McCormick and Katie Harvey) treat "I Need a Hero" as a doo-wop number, complete with mikes and choreography.
The ensemble in this production is incredible and are so full of energy that it's hard not to get swept up in their excitement. Special mention must be made of Christian Borle, who played Willard and Katie Harvie, who played Wendy Jo, as they stole every scene they were in. Mary Gordon Murray was also highly effective as Vi Moore, and deftly played the part with a brittle sense of humor.
The choreography by A. C. Ciulla is fast paced and largely imaginative. The staging by Walter Bobbie is seamless and moves at such a perfect clip that there isn't any time for that little voice in your head to question the possibility of the events even happening (a highly choreographed show about a town who can't dance makes as much sense as making a musical about a woman who can't sing). Lyricist Dean Pitchford (last seen on Broadway with the infamous Carrie; a fact strangely missing in his bio) who wrote the original screenplay, was largely successful in adapting it for the stage. Surprisingly, the songs from the movie integrate well into the show, and the new songs, with a few glaring exceptions, are nice additions to the show.
The exception is the only serious flaw in the show: the character and songs of the preacher, Shaw Moore. Daren Kelly sings and acts the part well, but the character just doesn't work. As written, Shaw lacks the warmth and likability that made him such a strong character in the movie. The effectiveness of the character on film was that he started off likable, and it was only as the movie progressed that we discovered his closed-mindedness and prejudices. His on-stage counterpart is hampered by two songs that literally stop the show and not in a positive manner. Having Shaw sing the 'eleven o'clock number' instead of the lead character Ren (well played on tour by Joe Machota) is a serious miscalculation. Not giving Ren an active role in changing Shaw's mind undercuts any dramatic arc the show has.
But over all Footloose is a fun, mindless, guilty pleasure of a show. And don't we all need something like that in our lives every now and then?
Tickets for either show can be purchased at the theater box office, or by calling TicketMaster.