In his review of the current Broadway revival of Jekyll & Hyde, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood referred to Frank Wildhorn musicals as "the crab grass of Broadway." Some people thought that was unprofessional or unnecessarily harsh of him. I think he was being kind.
I like to think that Isherwood, in an earlier draft of the review, referred to Wildhorn musicals as a certain other unfortunate item that one tends to find on suburban lawns, particularly in neighborhoods that have lots of dogs and not-so-considerate neighbors.
Jekyll & Hyde is an affront to musical theater, and has been since the first commercial recording came out 23 years ago. After lurking around in regional theaters, the show finally opened on Broadway in 1997, ran for an astounding 1,543 performances, and yet still managed to close without earning back its investment. (I'm pretty sure that makes Jekyll & Hyde the longest-running musical flop in Broadway history.)
The only thing that Jekyll & Hyde has ever had going for it is Frank Wildhorn's not entirely unpleasant melodies, even if the songs are generic and their style bears no relation whatsoever to the time and place of the piece. Why, then, the powers that be involved in the current Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde thought it was a good idea to recast the songs with harsh, steam-punk orchestrations is a mystery. Yeah, take the show's only asset and render it moot beneath a crush of heavy-metal sound and ear-splitting amplification. Sounds like a plan.
I'm not really sure what the reasoning was behind bringing this production to Broadway at all, except perhaps to take advantage of any residual audience for the fading luster of two supposed singing stars: Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox. (The show was supposed to play through the end of June, but has since announced that it will be closing this coming weekend.) Maroulis was actually kind of charming in Rock of Ages, but here he's an unfocused mess, all surface emoting and showboating vocalizations. (Oh, and, Constantine, about that accent. Are we talking England here? Wales? Scotland? Japan?) As for Cox, well, she sounded fine (thanks in part to a whole lotta reverb), but she didn't really command the stage in a way that the part of Lucy would seem to demand.
The production is directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, and it's hard to think of him as the same Jeff Calhoun who made Newsies into such a rousing success. The staging here is lifeless, particularly for Lucy's introductory number, "Bring on the Men." Calhoun uses the notion of Spider's Web, which is the name of the club where Lucy works (which I believe was called The Red Hat in previous versions), and includes a number of bungee-cord ropes to ensnare the men in attendance, but then he doesn't really do anything interesting with the ropes. The number just kinda sits there, much like the rest of the production.
One of the many things that made the original Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde so laughable was the infamous sequence called "The Confrontation," in which the poor actor playing Jekyll (at various times in the run, Robert Cuccioli, Sebastian Bach, Jack Wagner, David Hasselhoff, and other unfortunate souls) sang a duet with himself a while indicating the change from Jekyll to Hyde and back by whipping his hair back and forth. (Willow Smith, eat your heart out.) The results, trust me, were hysterical. (Click though the link in the title above and see for yourself.) For the current production, we have another kind of unintentional joke, with Jekyll confronting a prerecorded Hyde in the form of a risible series of projections on the back wall. The results look not unlike a 1980s MTV video from a very bad hair band.
Of course, Calhoun is hampered here by a piece that is simply atrocious from the get-go, and most of the blame for that lands at feet of Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the book and lyrics. The sad thing is that Bricusse used to have talent, at least as evidenced in his collaborations with Anthony Newley (Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) and a number of solo efforts (including the movie musical Scrooge with Albert Finney). But Bricusse's book for Jekyll & Hyde is leaden and plodding. The setups for the songs are clumsy, when they even exist. The power ballad "This Is the Moment" has no setup at all. Supposedly, Jekyll has just made a big decision about how to proceed with his experiment, and he launches into the song. Only later do we learn that he has decided to use himself as a guinea pig. Belt first, ask questions later.
What's worse, one of the central plot elements in the show - the relationship between Jekyll and the prostitute Lucy - seems to come out of nowhere and is then taken pretty much as a given, without the benefit of on-stage development. Jekyll gives Lucy his card after meeting her at her place of employ, and then she shows up one night at the good doctor's home with an undisclosed injury. He basically cleans the wound and puts on a bandage, and then we're supposed to accept that she's now in love with him, and that, even more ridiculous, he reciprocates her feelings. Which would be fine if we saw the relationship develop from there, but we don't. The only other times Lucy is on-stage is to sing two more power ballads ("In His Eyes" and "A New Life"), and at both times, Jekyll isn't with her. Power ballads apparently justify themselves in Frank Wildhorn's world.
If Bricusse's book is bad, his lyrics are actually worse. If you were to listen to any of the cast recordings, you would have no idea what's going on in the show. I know this, because that's what happened to me when I first listened to the concept recording in 1990. The power ballads in particular are virtually interchangeable. When Bricusse's rhymes aren't puerile ("strife/life") they're either painfully awkward ("Murder, murder/Once there's one done/Can't be undone") or virtually meaningless ("When the momentum and the moment are in rhyme").
So, bad production, bad show. The night I attended was a press performances, and the audience was largely composed of voters from the various award processes for New York theater (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, etc.) I could tell that the folks seated around me were having the same visceral reaction I was to the proceedings. Toward the end of the show, the character John, Jekyll's friend, confronts Jekyll with a sword to prevent Jekyll from harming the members of the wedding party. "Please," Jekyll says, seemingly inviting John to run him through. "Set us all free." The section of the audience where I was sitting, as if on cue, erupted into laughter.
"Yes, please," we seemed to say. "Put us all out of our misery."