Players’ ‘Jekyll and hyde’ a powerful look behind the mask
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published July 22, 2019
What I love about theater is how it can entertain and convey a message in so many different ways.
On Friday night, I saw Sunset’s marvelous musical “Hairspray,” a colorful, joyous ride that tackles race in the 1960s. It’s teenage love, hopes of stardom, friendship mixed with some commentary on race and upbeat music and dance.
On Saturday night, it was another musical, the dark and brooding “Jekyll and Hyde” presented by The West Allis Players. The two plays couldn’t be more different. “Hairspray’s” light and fluffy ’60s rock music, compared to “J&H’s” haunting, soaring, sometimes operatic pieces reminiscent of “Phantom of the Opera.”
“Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical,” with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn, is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The Jekyll-Hyde reference is often heard in life about a person who demonstrates both good and evil tendencies, often in quick order.
David Valdes directs the Players version of “Jekyll and Hyde” and has assembled a fine cast, including a trio of performers (Eric Bergendahl, Rachel Mauney and Gwen TerHaar) who take this story of a doctor transformed to a madman by his own hand and pour themselves into their roles with abandon, flawlessly navigating the challenging music with outstanding vocals and characterizations. Backing them up is an equally accomplished 18-piece orchestra (headed by Marshall Mauney), whose strings and brass capture all the excitement and emotion of this riveting story.
The show is jam-packed with music – 36 numbers in all – that are well-delivered by this cast of 26 and orchestra. This show truly has the feel of a big Broadway production.
The show is set in London in the late 19th century, where Dr. Jekyll is trying to convince the powers-that-be at St. Jude’s Hospital to allow him to conduct a risky and controversial experiment on someone, explaining: “Each of us is the embodiment of two distinct and opposing forces - Good and Evil, each fighting for supremacy inside us. If we could separate these two forces, we could control and ultimately eliminate all evil from mankind.” He is ridiculed, and laughed at by the group for his outrageous project.
Not being able to find a subject, Jekyll uses himself for the experiment, which unleashes in him a horrible evil side, a monster he dubs “Mr. Hyde.” While all his countrymen are wearing façades of civility, Dr. Jekyll feels free from such constraints, releasing his wicked side as he sings: “It's the feeling of being alive! Filled with evil but truly alive! It's the truth that cannot be denied! It's the feeling of being Edward Hyde!”
Mr. Hyde goes on a murder spree in London, while the two women who love him stand by Hyde’s alter ego, Dr. Jekyll.
Bergendahl tackles the tormented Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with great skill. He introduces us to the ambitious doctor, who Bergendahl establishes as serious and driven with his strong characterization. He goes on to Jekyll’s dark side, Mr. Hyde, bent and hulking like a hungry animal searching for food, a truly terrifying creature. His “Confrontation,” in which good and evil compete for dominance, is a brilliant piece, as is his earlier “This is the Moment” (though its soaring ending flattened out).
As his fiancée Emma, Mauney adds a beautiful, trained operatic soprano voice to tunes like “Letting Go,” wherein she tries to convince her father (Mark Frohna) not to worry about her impending marriage to the eccentric Dr. Jekyll, as well as the hauntingly beautiful “Once Upon a Dream,” remindful of the equally lovely “Beauty and the Beast.”
I’ve been a fan of TerHaar’s performances since I first saw her as Madame Thenardier in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “Les Misérables” and was more than impressed this time around. Here, she plays the prostitute Lucy, who falls in love with Dr. Jekyll at his bachelor party and is later stalked by Mr. Hyde. TerHaar’s sincerity and naturalness make for a sympathetic character in Lucy, while her strong, unpretentious vocals are a perfect fit. Her duet with Mauney’s Emma, “In His Eyes,” in which both women proclaim “Everything worth living for is there within his eyes,” displays their contrasting vocal styles and beautifully captures the emotion in the piece.
There are other wonderful performances here, including Coltyn VonDeylen’s as Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer, Utterson, who tries desperately to help his friend.
Director Valdes has elicited fine performances throughout, and the principals and ensemble provide a good look (costumes by Darcy Devens) and full sound. The set (John Dolphin, set design) is often in shadows, often with deep-red tints to backdrops to convey the heaviness of the subject and diabolic ways of Mr. Hyde.
I have to admit that Bergendahl was perhaps too good. Watching a man devolve into madness on stage with such palpable conviction can be wearing to the viewer – at least this viewer. But I cannot deny that this is perhaps once of the finest characterizations I’ve seen.
Yet, there is just no break from the gravity. Even in “Sweeney Todd,” with its crazed homicidal barber, there was some levity in the script, providing audiences some relief from horror like that which is so dramatically depicted here.
If you go
Who: West Allis Players
What: “Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical”
When: Through July 28
Where: West Allis Central High School Auditorium, 8516 W. Lincoln Ave., West Allis