Kelby Thwaits sinks his teeth into his role, and Amy Madden, in Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical.
Kelby Thwaits sinks his teeth into his role, and Amy Madden, in Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical.

Wicked Fun

There's something about the idea of separating the mingled good and evil within each of us that won't let go of the imagination. Part of the appeal of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the early seasons lay in the character of Angel, the vampire with a human soul, the dark, sorrowful lover -- tender and also dangerous -- who represented the antithesis of teenage daytime Sunnydale. There's a reason vampires and werewolves appear every year around this time, and a reason that even people with no literary interests at all have heard of Faust's deal with the devil, Dorian Gray's hideous portrait and the strange duality of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it's a very specific kind of evil these archetypal figures embody. It has nothing to do with, say, greed, dishonesty, coldheartedness and the lust for power. It's all about violence, and it's all about sex.

Jekyll & Hyde, the Musical plays this material just about right. It's more melodrama than tragedy, the chills are pleasurable and the songs easy to hum. And though you're not really required to identify with any of the characters, every now and then the piece provides a moment of genuine empathy or fear.

As the musical opens, Dr. Jekyll is standing by his wheelchair-bound and presumably demented father, the inspiration for his coming experiments in personality change (though after this one scene, the aged parent disappears for the rest of the evening). Because the closed-minded and hypocritical board of the hospital where he works refuses to sanction his experiments, Jekyll begins carrying them out in secret and decides to use himself as the subject. He plunges a hypodermic needle containing a blood-red chemical into his arm and, after an entertainingly horrifying series of grunts, spasms, rollings about on the floor, kicks, howls and spastic jerks, emerges as the satanic Mr. Hyde. How long can it be before Dr. Jekyll loses control and this monstrous hatchling takes over his body at will?

The story's two heroines -- virtuous, strong-souled Emma, and Lucy, the fallen woman -- personify the hoary old virgin-slut dichotomy and provide an echo of the good and evil in Jekyll himself. But here the absolutes blur. Lucy may be a whore, but she's a gentle, loving one, pathetically eager for emotional connection and redemption.

Hyde roams the dark, winding streets of London like Jack the Ripper, though he's an equal-opportunity killer, dispatching men as well as women. The first killing is savage, but on the whole, the murders are dealt with lightly. The victims are the hypocrites who blocked Jekyll's research in the first place. "Murder, Murder," sings the ensemble, twirling umbrellas and flapping newspapers and exuding the pursed-lipped, censorious glee with which society responds to a good murder. But then the danger comes perilously close to lovely Lucy, and the play's humor drops away. The ending, a take on the classic love-death, is actually quite touching.

Frank Wildhorn's music is tuneful and terrific and provides a full quota of lyrical love songs, yearning ballads, funny, lively ensemble numbers and bring-down-the-house showstoppers. I had only one complaint: Too many songs ended with the singer revving up higher and higher (like almost every other local musical venue, the Carousel is over-miked), as if the only way to communicate intense emotion were to blast the audience with sheer volume. On a couple of occasions, as when Lucy and Emma sang "In His Eyes" together, these climaxes became positively painful.

The Carousel Dinner Theatre has mounted an excellent production; it's balanced skillfully between horror and humor, giving each its due. Dr. Jekyll is the kind of juicy role that can make an actor's reputation, and Kelby Thwaits sinks his teeth into it. He's a kindly, contained, authoritative and handsome Jekyll, but he really comes into his own as Hyde, a transformation he accomplishes by mussing up his hair, distorting his body, deepening his voice to a snarl and emitting those guttural animal sounds you always hear in the movies from a newly transformed werewolf. Thwaits's Hyde is both sensual and frightening. You can tell the actor is having a hell of a good time, and, as a result, so are we. There's one long song in which Jekyll and Hyde confront each other that hovers dangerously close to farce, the singer moving again and again from a noble pose to a skulking one and back, but Thwaits handles it with style. Amy Madden, as Lucy, is another standout. Though she's tall, dark and lively, she's not a natural pick for the role of prostitute; you can tell she's a nice girl. Even leading the sexy, flamboyant "Bring on the Men" with the girls of the Red Rat Pub, Madden displays a certain reticence and delicacy of gesture. But she's really touching as Lucy begins to fall in love with Jekyll, and she sings "Someone Like You" with such a gush of joy and feeling -- even doing a strange little thumpy-jumpy stomp in the middle of it like a delighted six-year-old -- that she captures the audience entirely. "I love Lucy," murmured someone at my table. Janelle Cato, who plays Emma, has a lovely voice, especially during the quieter moments, but there's something impermeable about her. While the scenes between Jekyll and Lucy are filled with tenderness, you don't sense any real feeling between Jekyll and Emma. Cato's attempted English accent is part of the problem. It's brittle and hits hard on the consonants, making a tiny projectile of every word. Cato's is not the only troubling accent, but it is the most noticeable.

There are several satisfying voices and performances in the cast (including those of Mark Johnson as Jekyll's lawyer and Richard O'Brien as Emma's father), but there are also a couple of weak ones. The chorus is lively, appealing, and well-choreographed by Scott Wright. When Christian Nielsen sheds his fake Bishop of Basingstoke beard to join the ensemble and later officiate at the wedding, he wields a smile that could charm a hyena.

This show requires strong, clean direction, and Kurt Terrio provides it. In particular, the murder scenes are impressive. It's almost impossible to convince audiences that an actor is being killed in front of them. Stage murders tend to be forgettable at best and inadvertantly funny at worst. But the killings in Jekyll & Hyde are disturbing and grotesque. For a Colorado dinner theater, this is unexpectedly grown-up fare.

The sets, by the multi-talented Peter Frederick Muller, who also designed the lighting and created the orchestration, are first-rate. Muller has done wonders with his small space, creating a drawing room, a London street and Dr. Jekyll's lab, with its flickering oil lamps and array of potions -- settings that provide flexible, skilled and unobtrusive support for the action.

Though I thought the food fell somewhat short (a reservation not shared by my table mates), the Carousel provides a pleasant ambience -- not to mention an accomplished and exhilarating evening of theater.


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