Frank Wildhorn's "Jekyll & Hyde" was never a subtle night of theater — more of a guilty, sexy pleasure, really, with high-wattage, hook-heavy power ballads that might not have had much of a connection to Robert Louis Stevenson's London (oh no), but given the right voices and a couple of pre-show cocktails, Lucy and her naughty Mister Hyde surely could make you forget the mundanity of a long work week. I have long had a soft spot for "Jekyll & Hyde," a perfectly solid, populist, enjoyable musical entertainment that constantly out-ran the critics' sniffs. For years, I would clean the house to the soundtrack, tidying up to "Someone Like You," loading the dishwasher to "This is the Moment."
"A new life," I'd sing to no one in particular, channeling Linda Eder, albeit accompanied only by the sound of the vacuum. "What I wouldn't give to have a new life!"
I never got one. But we do have "Jekyll & Hyde" back — a trashy new production directed by Jeff Calhoun in its final pre-Broadway engagement before opening in New York in April. It's replete with Constantine Maroulis, the original Broadway star of "Rock of Ages," as the Janus-like Doc, and the Canadian R&B singer Deborah Cox as Lucy, that classic sentimental hooker. This new revival, seemingly destined for Las Vegas, where entertainment can be foreplay, has a design from Tobin Ost that feels inspired not by Victorian literature but by sadomasochistic dungeons. Nary a scene goes by, it seems, without someone tying somebody else up. Even the pastiche number, "Bring On the Men," originally a light-hearted invitation sung by Lucy, a hooker at peace with her work before things got too bad, is now staged with everyone tied up with rope.
Bondage is one thing once Mister Hyde is ascendant; the show always has offered folks a little Saturday night slap-and-tickle on the dark side. But the fundamental problem with this campy production is that by going full-on gothic Grand Guignol right from the get-go, it misses the one crucial thing this show always needs — whether it's being produced on Broadway, on tour or (in a very fine production, years ago) at the University of Evansville. Which is duality. I mean, it ain't complex. You got Jekyll's world — earnest, frustrating, romantic, cerebral. You got Hyde's world — dark, sexual, violent, ooh ... attractive. This new production goes right to Hyde-land. Even the first image, when Dr. J encounters his poor father stretched on a rack in an asylum, motivating his angst, is like something from a Halloween house of horrors. And thus you don't get to know Jekyll, you don't feel rooted in any kind of normative world, and thus you can't care about the fellow, nor his women. The visual conceit totally kills the suspense of Hyde's arrival. The whole show is so busy gearing up for him stylistically, it forgets that he is actually supposed to be a surprise to everyone. Even himself.
So what to do before Broadway? Well, it wouldn't be a bad idea to invite, say, a nun off the street and have her clean out a few of the toys and weird scenic contraptions. Have her take some of the flaming video too — then there might be room for some legitimate choreography and more personal connections. As any great lover will tell you, when the props and contraptions are ruling the roost, rather than good, old-fashioned passion, you might as well pack it in.
The great strength of this show is its score. And in Cox, who is by far the best thing about this "Jekyll & Hyde," the production has a terrific singer and a sexy, perfectly respectable actress offering a character with that feels fresh enough for the post-Beyonce era but also vulnerable. Cox, who brings out Maroulis' best stuff when her body is attached to him, will emerge smelling like a rose on Broadway. So will Teal Wicks, who totally transforms Emma Carew from the old insipid interpretation into a lusty Victorian woman ready to fight for her man; well, for half of him. But boy, do these fine ladies have to step over some twisted shtick.
And Maroulis? Well, you can't get mad at him because he's sweet and earnest. And he offers some laughs. My favorite is the bit where his famously ample locks totally cover his face and he says "What is this creature?" "It's your hair," I wanted to shout back. Maroulis really has to make his Hyde less creepy-weird (that Brit-rocker accent doesn't help) and more creepy-sexy. He could do this, I think. Maroulis is a decent talent with a formidable pop voice. But his default here is Stacee Jaxx of "Rock of Ages," a glancing blow, when he needs to be commanding in a high-status, charming-but-deadly kind of way.
Sure, freshen it all up. But without that old, legit gravitas in the Hyde cocktail, both vocally and theatrically, you feel more queasy than drunk on dangerous possibility. And without that change, the show won't work in its proven way.
When: Through March 24
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $33-$95 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye