Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera,
At its season opener Friday night, the slumping Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera stepped up to the plate badly in need of a hitand promptly knocked one out of the park with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
The SBCLO remains the linchpin of the local performing arts scene, so it was a great relief to see this company back in major-league form after an erratic previous season hampered by uneven quality and financial chaos.
None of those problems was evident in the impeccably polished West Coast premiere of this handsome musical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic morality tale. From the lavish, fog-enshrouded London sets to the detailed Victorian costumes that envelop this talented ensemble, Charles Ballinger's staging exudes professionalism and crowd-pleasing spectacle.
Subtitled "Not the Broadway musical" in an effort to avoid confusion with the current New York hit, this version by David Levy and Leslie Eberhard (book and lyrics) and Phil Hall (music) takes a very different approach to staging Stevenson's brooding meditation on the capacity for good and evil in all of us. Rather than the familiar device of a single actor transformed by makeup (and all-too-frequently, a hammy performance), the approach here is to use different actors to represent the respective personalities of the virtuous Dr. Jekyll (Ray Benson) and the immoral Hyde (Jeffrey Rockwell).
Despite the lack of physical resemblance between the two, the conceit works quite well, especially in the dramatic opportunities it affords for confrontation between the two as they rage for possession of Henry Jekyll's soul.
The psychological dichotomy spills over into the female leads. Although not literally the same character, Jekyll's noble, aristocratic fiancee (Teri Bibb) and Hyde's bawdy, dance hall singer (Rhae Ann Theriault) together embody the Madonna-whore divided vision of femininity that goes hand in hand with the Judeo-Christian theological subtext.
Providing a convincing social context for these moral quandaries are Jack Ritschel, Eleanor Brand, Peg Walsh, Beth Curry, Chris Tice and Jefferey D. Grossman, heading a capable ensemble.
This thoroughly modern musical is a welcome broadening of the company's traditional arc. With more than a passing nod to "Sweeney Todd" in theme and mode (as well as modular multi-tiered sets) this is a darker, grittier SBCLO experience than the typically innocuous shows of the past. It's also racier with some particularly steamy scenes between Theriault and Rockwellnothing you wouldn't see on prime-time television, but more explicit than what SBCLO audiences are used to. In many ways a reflection of the recent painful maturing the company itself has undergone, this decidedly adult show is an important outreach to a more expansive audience.
The construction is elegant and spare. Instead of easing us into the show with a leisurely overture, the curtain rises on a moody ensemble number abruptly cut short by gunfire.
Realistically, this show isn't likely to become enshrined as one of the great musicals, but the songs do a credible job giving voice to the characters' conflicts and revelations (as well or better than the Broadway version). Accompanied by a tight orchestra expertly led by Elise Uhruh, the committed, charismatic delivery by the talented leads sold the songs to an enthusiastic audience on opening night. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" will be a big hit for the SBCLO, and deservedly so.
FAUSTUS AND HIS BETTER HALF
Ray Benson plays Robert Louis Stevenson's arrogant medical researcher, Dr.
Henry Jekyll and Jeffrey Rockwell his bestial alter ego, Edward Hyde, in this
dazzling new production of Stevenson's classic story of an overreaching
scientist whose single-minded quest for new knowledge destroys him.
Completing the cast are Teri Bibb as Jekyll's devoted, long-suffering
fiancee, Amanda Lanyon; Rhae Ann Theriault as the street-wise dance hall girl
Lily Cummins, and Jack Ritschel as Amanda's imperious, pig-headed father
As an entertainment, this Jekyll--as the program emphatically points out,
"Not the Broadway Musical"--could scarcely be bettered. Sets (Michael
Anania) and costumes (Sue Stafford Kennedy) were superbly and tastefully
colorful; the songs, if not immortal, were serviceable, audible and easy on
the ear (except when a singer gets too carried away with his or her Cockney
accent); and the special visual effect (Jack Morocco) all came off
spectacularly well. Charles Ballinger's direction kept the story moving
right along without sacrificing intelligibility, and Elise Unruh's conducting
guaranteed a coherent musical background for the melodrama. It was a very
satisfying evening of music theater.
There is rather more male flesh on display in this production than is usual
in family entertainment, and an overall willingness to explore unconventional
libido (sadism, masochism, even a kind of narcissistic homoeroticism).
This production is superb and a delight.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE SPLIT AND SING
This good-natured humanitarian Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil counterpart, the
dastardly Mr. Edward Hyde are singing once again. The Santa Barbara Civic
Light Opera is presenting the West Coast Premiere of this version, the third
musical incarnation for Robert Louis Stevenson's literary duo this reviewer
has covered in the past few years. The best thing book and lyric writers
David Levy and Leslie Eberhard did was to create roles for two actors and
then actually give them some scenes together. This very effectively displays
the differences in their beings, with Jekyll (Ray Benson) being an uptight
Victorian man while Hyde (Jeffrey Rockwell) is, in the notes on the program,
"presented instead as a brazen, strutting Adonis." These two talented
performers really sink their teeth into their respective roles and play off
each other, and their leading ladies, very well.
The voices in the this production, including the large chorus, are marvelous
and the four leads really sing the score. Phil Hall has provided some really
lovely and stirring melodies, well played by the orchestra under the baton of
musical director Elise Unruh. Benson and Rockwell are a dynamic duo and each
takes the stage with authority. Teri Bibb's lilting soprano soars as Amanda,
a strong woman who knows what she wants in life (Jekyll) and is determined to
get it. Rhae Ann Theriault makes a lusty presence as Lily, the dance hall
girl who falls under the brutally lusty spell of Hyde and has the bruises to
prove it. Jack Ritschel heads the supporting cast as Amanda's father and
once again delivers a polished and nuanced performance. Richard Fox, Peg
Walsh, Tim Talman and Eleanor Brand lend fine support.
Director Charles Ballinger has mounted a strong production and his smooth
pacing keeps the show moving at a fast clip. David Neville's moody lighting
and Sue Stafford Kennedy's period costumes add the right touch. Jay Michael
Jagim coordinated the scenic design that came from several different
productions which was effective if a bit cumbersome at times. There was lots
of stair climbing a la Sweeney Todd and the fog machine never let up, even
for the indoor scenes. Choreographer Kay Cole gave the dance hall girls some
de rigeur bumps and grinds.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE
D. L. King
"Not the Broadway Musical" say the press materials, and even the program, for
this West Coast premiere by Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. A sumptuous
set, accomplished actors, innovative staging by SBCLO artistic director
Charles Ballinger and marvelous musicianship (by musical director Elise
Unruh and her orchestra) triumph, making SBCLO's comeback from the brink of
financial disaster all the sweeter. Forgoing the traditional opening
overture, the curtain rises to a resound-ing heartbeat and the pulsating
action of a bustling London. The resulting immediacy of the foggy scene
succeeds in drawing in the audience, and ever-present Londoners spying on the
mounting action play our willing alter egos.
Rather than one actor portraying the noble Dr. Henry Jekyll, as well as his
evil alter ego Edward Hyde, this book casts each part separately. Ray Benson
(Jekyll) definitely commandeers his part with a multilayered interpretation
of his character's emotional and intellectual turmoil. Benson's acting and
musicality mesh admirably. Meeting Benson's challenging performance level
are Teri Bibb as Jekyll's beloved Amanda Lanyon and Rhae Ann Theriault as
beautiful music hall performer Lily Cummins. Hyde is extremely well acted by
Jeffrey Rockwell, though his singing sometimes seems forced. Despite
puzzling variations in dialect, the ensemble (led by Jack Ritschel as
Amanda's father Gerald, Richard Fox as Poole, and Peg Walsh as Mrs. Root)
delivers with satisfying sound and affect. Intricate choreography (Kay
Cole), rich costuming (Sue Stafford Kennedy), solid sound production (John
Feinstein), and that wonderful set by Jay Michael Jagim as designed by
Michael Anania provide the perfect ambiance for a very satisfying staging.
Musicals tend to come in twos these days. Those who saw Frank Wildhorn's
"Jekyll and Hyde" when it passed through the Pantages last year can rest
assured the the version now being staged by Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera
is not the same show. SBCLO also staged the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit
"Phantom" a few seasons ago, based on the same source material as Andrew
Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," so the company is comfortable with
Coming out of a rocky financial season that brought about strong community
support and stabilized the company for the foreseeable future, SBCLO is
obviously delighted to be presenting the West Coast premiere of "Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde," with book and lyrics by David Levy and Leslie Eberhard, whose
credits include TV ("Frasier") and revues, and music by conductor/musical
director Phil Hall.
This "Jekyll" doesn't come by way of Broadway, but rather by way of
Springboro, Ohio (1996), Beverly, Mass (1996), Kansas City (1997) and the
Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey (1998). It differs from the Wildhorn
version in style, and in one key casting element. The music by Wildhorn, who
seems aptly named, tends toward belting and rock, floridly drama-tized. Hall
and associates are more restrained all around, with an attractive but more
They also tell the story with less violence. The second act of the Wildhorn
musical was almost totally devoted to one outrageous murder after another by
the crazed Mr. Hyde, until the stage was strewn with broken bodies. There is
only one murder depicted in the Hall treatment, and it is handled discreetly.
Eberhard and Levy have also leavened the tale with bits of humor and more
time is given to the dance-hall scenes, which capture the raucous spirit of
The key difference, though, is the use of two actors for the title roles,
which are actually two sides of one character. As the story opens, Dr.
Jekyll represents the virtuous side, a scientist who delves into the dual
nature of man in an attempt to find a way to control the darker impulses.
Through his harrowing experimentation, he suddenly finds himself transformed
into Mr. Hyde, the evil that lurks beneath Jekyll's beneficent researcher.
In the Wildhorn musical, one actor played both roles. In a showpiece, he
sings as the good doctor, with hair slicked back, then turns to reveal his
unkempt wild side. It's a sight that is destined to appear in a "Forbidden
Broadway" spoof one of these days.
Even though the men playing Jekyll and Hyde on the Granada Theater stage for
SBCLO differ quite a bit in looks, they make the split psyche work, under
artistic director Charles Ballinger's experienced hand. No small portion of
the success is due to the exceptional performance of Ray Benson as Jekyll.
He makes the mild-mannered doctor all too human and sings with extraordinary
skill, particularly in the emotional soliloquy in which he realizes that
there is no turning back from the path he has taken.
As his nemesis Hyde, Jeffrey Rockwell is taller and darker, his voice
ominously deeper. Together they make the unusual staging work very well.
Other exceptional voices fill the stage. Teri Bibb is the ethereal and
devoted Amanda, Jekyll's beloved and Rhae Ann Theriault is the spicy
dance-hall girl, Lily. Jack Ritschel as Amanda's father lends an elegant
touch to "A Father's Song." A small chorus playing multiple roles, and a
tight-knit, 12-piece orchestra led by musical director and conductor Elise
Unruh, strengthen the production throughout.
The show requires a flexible, evocative set, and the production boasts a
fluid one. Pyrotechnics in Jekyll's mysterious lab explode on cue, one of
the many elements that work well in SBCLO's promising calling card for the
For anyone unfamiliar with Stevenson's philosophical horror story--and there
seemed to be a number of the uninitiated on opening night--"Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde" can be an astonishing experience. Those who know the story and
have seen the Wildhorn show will find SBCLO's production a kinder, gentler
telling of the tale, once that's equally--if not more--effective.