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It’s been a good spring/early summer for monsters in Chattanooga. Theater for the New South just closed their production of Neal Bell’s “Monster.” The Chattanooga Theatre Centre’s production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” continues through July 14—and a strong case can be made for the monsterhood of our seventh president.
Then there’s “Jekyll & Hyde,” onstage for one more weekend at Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga. Like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” on which “Monster” is based, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was written as a novella.
The “Jekyll & Hyde” ETC presents is a 1997 musical by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse and Steve Cuden. Theatre buffs will know that Wildhorn is a love-it-or-leave-it discussion in the musical theatre world. The original production ran for more than three years on Broadway and spawned a cult of “Jekkies” who returned again and again to see the show. However, it also inspired some of the most vitriolic reviews since the days of George Jean Nathan.
Walking into ETC’s black box theatre, each audience member is bathed in acid green light, momentarily transforming them into “monsters.” A clever idea—and in fact, all the design elements of this production live up to the new standards ETC has set for itself in this, its first season in the company’s new space. Sue Christiansen’s versatile, theatre-in-the-round set, Brenda Schwab’s detailed period costumes, Sanford Knox Jr.’s careful lighting and Amber Brown’s prop choices are all outstanding aids to this show.
Director Garry Lee Posey moves his actors through the set and scenes expertly, using the space to its maximum potential. The 18-member cast has dance numbers that have to work in a relatively small space, and do. (A standout show moment is the second act opening number, “Murder, Murder.”)
The leads, John Thomas Cecil as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Marianna Allen as Emma Carew and Jennifer Arbogast as Lucy Harris, are well cast and obviously deeply committed to the material. Allen and Arbogast have another show highlight in their duet “In His Eyes.”
Cecil has to carry the show, and as an actor, does an admirable job with difficult material. His voice, however, does not have the range that would allow the score’s repetitive material to achieve the melodramatic climaxes intended by the composer. But we do get a real sense of the battle to the literal death of the two beings inhabiting one body, and Cecil throws himself physically into this battle rivetingly.
Allen’s strong voice serves her well as ever-loving Emma, Dr. Jekyll’s “good” fiancée, and she has a lovely moment with her father (Thomas Rodgers) in the first act’s “Letting Go.” It isn’t Allen’s fault that this is a true one-note role, but her performance does little to add complexity or depth. Arbogast has better luck with the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Lucy, and her polished stage presence is shown off in “A New Life.”
Among the ensemble, Michael Westmoreland (Simon Stride), Brenda Schwab (Lady Beaconsfield/Mistress Spider) and Thomas Alford (The Bishop of Basingstroke) all add nice detail and sensibility.
Now we come to this viewer’s difficulty: Clearly, I am not a “Jekkie.” What I will say about this production (which received a standing ovation from the audience at the performance I attended) is that if you are a fan of “Phantom of the Opera” and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in general, the odds are very good you will very much enjoy this show. Stephen Sondheim fans likely need not apply.
“Jekyll & Hyde,” 7:30 p.m. June 20, 21,22, 2:30 p.m. June 23, Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, 5600 Brainerd Rd. (inside Eastgate Town Center). $20/$15 students with ID. (423) 987-5141, ensembletheatreofchattanooga.com