Wild vs. Wacky
By Donnie Matsuda
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing two very unconventional pieces of theatre. One was a wild ride and the other was a wacky one. Here are my reviews of the Broadway-bound premiere of “Jekyll and Hyde” at Broadway San Diego and the rolling premiere of “The Exit Interview” at San Diego REP.
“Jekyll & Hyde” a Wild Ride
He’s a tough one to like, that Dr. Jekyll. So is his evil alter ego, Edward Hyde.
The same can be said for the new Broadway-bound musical that unites the two prickly personalities under one title. The Nederlander-produced “Jekyll and Hyde,” which kicked off its multi-city tour here in San Diego before it ends up on the Great White Way in 2013, definitely has its mood swings. At times, it can be thrilling and electrifying with its soaring anthems and incredible voices, thanks largely to the devilish machinations of Tony Award nominee Constantine Maroulis and the raspy, earthy tones of Grammy-nominated R&B Superstar Deborah Cox. But then, the whole thing kind of derails in parts when the propulsive (though mostly unmemorable) new Frank Wildhorn score achieves ear-shattering levels and the ensemble cast screams through incomprehensible lyrics, all the while larger-than-life projections of fire engulf the stage. It is those moments that are the hardest to bear, and one can only wonder what purpose they are to serve here. Perhaps they are intended to add an edgy, rock-concert vibe to the proceedings, or perhaps they are meant to add more melodrama to an already overly self-indulgent spectacle. Or perhaps they are just experimental filler.
Regardless, there are still some redeeming elements in this breakthrough revival, which itself is quite different than the original 1990 concept album (featuring Colm Wilkinson and Linda Eder) and the original Broadway production (which played the Plymouth Theatre from 1997-2001, featuring Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder). The story, which is supposed to be based on the acclaimed Robert Louis Stevenson novella about a London doctor who accidentally unleashes his evil alternate persona while trying to cure his father’s illness, has shifted focus here. Now, the plot features the five members of the Board of Directors at a London hospital: a snide bishop (David Benoit), a foolish general (Aaron Ramey), a righteous Lord (Brian Gallagher), a clueless Lady (Blair Ross), and a Sir (Mel Johnson, Jr.). As we see them pompously perched on their thrones evenly spaced across the stage proscenium – some evocative staging by Broadway director and Old Globe favorite Jeff Calhoun – there’s an almost palpable sense of revenge bubbling in the “good” doctor’s veins as his proposal to use a new serum on human subjects is flatly denied.
Instead, the “good” doctor takes matters into his own hands (or is it veins?) as he returns to his laboratory and hooks himself up to some uber-cool, color-changing tubes filled with enough of a mysterious bubbly potion to completely alter his entire sense of self. The spectacles come off, the hair grows long and unruly, and the murder-hungry Hyde emerges ready to seek revenge. It is only a matter of a few bloody minutes - in a heart-pounding Act 2 opener - before we see the same Board of Directors get disposed of one by one, eventually perched up on their deathbeds in place of their thrones. Fortunately, that’s not all there is to the story (or else it would make for a very short second act!). There’s a much-needed second plotline that involves Jekyll’s soon to be wife, a pure-as-snow Emma Carew (a gloriously voiced Teal Wicks) and the other woman in the doctor’s life, his lustful prostitute Lucy (a gritty Deborah Cox). While this intriguing love triangle ends up going nowhere very quickly, it at least provides for some of the show’s best songs: a soaring “This is the Moment” in Act 1 and a stirring “In His Eyes” in Act 2.
Much of the show’s edgy steampunk vibe is sharply enhanced by its technical wizardry. Kudos to scenic designer Tobin Ost who works wonders constructing a dark, barren, and hazy feel to the proceedings, with massive cinematic set pieces all framed by a moving proscenium arch outlined in bold neon lights. Ost also provides some exquisite high-society get-ups that are appropriate for 19th century London and his entire design scheme is eerily lit by Jeff Croiter’s lights and set in motion by Daniel Brodie’s splashy projections. Sound designer Ken Travis keeps it all surprisingly well balanced, though there are times that the shrill-sounding 11-piece orchestra clashes with the screaming and screechy voices to effect a few “nails on a chalkboard” moments.
So, much like its dually conflicted title character, there are both “good” and “bad” elements of this “Jekyll & Hyde.” With explosive voices, over-the-top characters, and dynamic staging, it is probably best to just surrender to this overdone, self-indulgent spectacle and enjoy its dark and wild side.
“The Exit Interview” a Wacky Ride
What do you get when you mix together a couple of socially and politically savvy cheerleaders, a slick Fox News reporter with a penchant for too much makeup, a well-meaning but smug HR director grappling with the age old question of “why, God, why?”, two German mothers engaged in endless “small talk,” an oboe-obsessed ex-girlfriend with a fanatical right-wing mother, a product-placement pushing priest, and an agnostic university professor who specializes in the works of Bertolt Brecht?
Well, in the opinion of those of us who see plays for their logical progression and thoughtful/insightful exploration of ideas via well-timed thematic arcs, the short answer would be a total theatrical mess. But in the case of “The Exit Interview,” William Missouri Down’s satirical examination of faith and fate in the 21st century, things don’t come off as terribly disorganized as they sound. Okay, perhaps they do, but that’s part of the point here. You see, Down’s takes a Brechtian approach to his storytelling, allowing for a number of dramatic turns in which he (shown via video feed riding his horse or working in his “office” smack dab in the middle of a forest somewhere in the Midwest) stops the show and changes the script as it is being performed, frequently inserting totally random scenes in Brecht’s native Germanic tongue. And, in order to fully expose the process rather than the product, Downs ensures that the stagehands are always visible and that they enact intentionally clumsy and abrupt scene changes. Lucky for us, in case we need any help with this Brechtian break away from “realism,” we have an expert in the field, fictional college professor Dick Fig (an easygoing Herbert Siguenza) whose exit interview with HR director Eunice (a hare-brained Linda Libby) tries to provide some thematic continuity to the entire piece.
It all comes together as a wacky series of Saturday Night Live comedy sketches, thanks to the (mostly) funny material and absurd characters provided by Downs, the spitfire direction by REP Co-Founder and Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, and the ace cast of six actors who seamlessly morph into a number of kooky supporting characters that keep the comedic charade going. Particularly impressive are JoAnne Glover and Lisel Gorell-Getz who work their pom-poms while cheering about existential angst; Fran Gercke as a parish priest who pushes the divine enjoyment of Diet Coke while, well, it is not quite clear what his role in the show is; and Nick Cagle as a preening Fox News reporter who is only concerned about his image…and about pushing his right-wing agenda.
Without a doubt, you will leave the theatre scratching your head and wondering “what does it all mean?” And that’s the point of this world premiere piece, which is the second of five “rolling” premieres which are occurring all over the U.S. under the auspices of the National New Play Network. In true Brechtian fashion, it’s not about the messy process of the play itself: it’s about the meaningful discussions about religion, sex, and politics that it engenders on the car ride home.
So, gather your most liberal and intellectual of friends and get ready to take in all the craziness!
Things to know before you go: Jekyll & Hyde presented by Broadway San Diego played at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street from October 2 – 7, 2012. Running time was 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 20 minute intermission. Ticket prices vary. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit TicketMaster.com, call (888) 937-8995, or visit www.BroadwaySD.com.
Things to know before you go: The Exit Interview presented by San Diego REP plays in the Lyceum Space at Lyceum Theatre through October 21, 2012. Running time is 2 hours 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.