This Halloween season, Free Range Humans treats audiences to a one-of-a-kind production of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde in Jekyll & Hyde: An Immersive Musical Experience at Frederick’s Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church. Director Elizabeth Lucas’ new 90-minute adaptation moves the audience through spooky chambers, up and down staircases, and across balconies.
Jekyll & Hyde is based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story about Dr. Jekyll’s attempt to scientifically extract the evil from his personality, accidentally unleashing a violent alter ego, “Mr. Hyde” who wreaks havoc on Victorian London. Like much of Wildhorn’s work (dubbed “the crabgrass of Broadway” by the New York Times), it is a showcase for big-voiced pop show tunes, spinning its melodramatic tale without a stitch of irony. Leslie Bricusse’s book is somewhat plodding, and his lyrics range from saccharine to sketchy (“to kill outside St. Paul’s/requires a lot of balls”). In short, this show is neither Sondheim nor Shakespeare, presenting a “two-sided” opportunity/challenge for Free Range: there is most definitely room for improvement via judicious text-slashing and an innovative concept, but even the most brilliant concept is still going to be saddled to this monster.
Lucas’ direction shines in her unique staging that requires the audience to be actively engaged in the story. She makes creative use of the various church rooms where recorded accompaniment is piped through speakers. This environmental staging absolves a need for scenery, or extensive lighting and sound design (credited respectively to TJ Lukacsina and Brent Tomchik). The “unplugged” church acoustics enhance harmonious group choral numbers like “Facade” (Music Direction by Marci Shegogue), but prove more challenging for soloists singing in Wildhorn’s pop/rock style intended for microphones. Great care has been taken to project surtitles in the many rooms.
All of these pieces add up to a winningly creepy fun-house vibe. The immersive concept involves the audience in the action without demanding participation, but if “Jekkies” feel compelled to sing along with a chorus of “Bring On The Men” in the Red Rat, it will likely be welcomed and compliment the festivities. This production, enhanced by a diverse ensemble of youngish actors, would make an exceptional early theatre experience for younger audience members (with a hard PG-13 rating for acts of violence and a steamy brothel bedroom scene).
The thirteen-actor ensemble is fearless in their efforts to immerse the audience in the show. As Dr. Jekyll, Matt Hirsh displays vocals that sizzle in big songs like “This Is The Moment” and “Alive.” Kylie Smith brings a refreshing playfulness and powerhouse vocals to the role of Jekyll’s beloved Emma. Laura Wittenberger’s nuanced portrayal of Lucy evokes sympathy and plays on the heartstrings, but falls short on the vocal demands of the role written as a star vehicle for Linda Eder.
In the supporting cast, Russell Rinker is a standout as Emma’s father Sir Danvers Carew, with operatic vocals and a commanding presence. The remaining ensemble members (in clever neo-gothic costumes by Brian Nugent and Tiffany Freeze) mostly serve to whisper in shadows and usher the audience from one room to the next.
Jekyll & Hyde is an arguably flawed musical that is making an unusual resurgence at many local community theatres this season. To appropriate the old cliché: if you see one local production of Jekyll & Hyde, make it this one. Lucas’ unique concept mostly elevates the material into something far more exciting, though it occasionally buckles under the weight of clunky writing. The truly spine-chilling moment of the evening comes in one transition where the music grinds to a halt and a long silence is held, broken only by the echo of Hyde’s footsteps as he walks through the balcony shadows into Lucy’s red-lit bedchamber – the ensemble silently daring us to follow. It begs the question whether this concept might have been better realized through an original, non-musical adaptation of the story.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Free Range Humans’ production of Jekyll & Hyde: An Immersive Musical Experience plays through November 3, 2019, at the Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church, 8 West 2nd Street, Frederick MD. Purchase tickets online.
Ensemble: Benjamin Eisenhour, Camryn Brooke Shegogue, Danie Harrow, Dylan Toms, Kenny Rodriguez, Kylie Smith, Laura Whittenberger, Matt Hirsh, Matty Montes, Michael E. Mason, Russell Rinker, Surasree Das, Zoë Velling