Two-faced

Posted on 07 Dec 2012 at 8:00am

The good and bad in men provides the lesson for both ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

Left: OH, HENRY | Maroulis and Cox really can belt out their numbers, though it’s less showtune than club remix in the reimagined ‘Jekyll & Hyde.’ Right: HE DOESN’T STAND A GHOST OF A CHANCE | Scrooge (Chamblee Ferguson) is visited by an oddly sympathetic Marley (Brian Gonzales) in DTC’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

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ON THE BOARDS
JEKYLL & HYDE at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. . Through Dec. 16. ATTPAC.org.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Dec. 23. DallasTheaterCenter.org.

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Nineteenth century England is surprisingly well represented on North Texas stages this week — and the Brits involved are both a couple of two-faced men. Dallas Theater Center’s annual production of A Christmas Carol performs for the last time at the Kalita, with Scrooge progressing from bitter ol’ curmudgeon to warm-hearted patron; at the Winspear, the protagonist of the pre-Broadway revival of Jekyll & Hyde has the opposite journey, as benevolent scientist Henry Jekyll transforms into sexually predatory Edward Hyde. It’s not betraying any literary secrets to say things ultimately go better for the character in one of these plays than in the other. Audiences, too.

Men are animals, we all know, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella proved just that, exploring the duality of man. Frank Wildhorn turned that into a dark musical 20 years ago — one that was initially poo-poo’d by critics and couldn’t get a Broadway booking, until a concept album, regional production at Houston’s Alley Theatre and subsequent national tour created interest. Jekyll & Hyde eventually ran on B’way for nearly four years, introduced the world to Linda Eder and spawned such notable songs as “Someone Like You,” “This is the Moment” and “Take Me As I Am.” Sporting events and weddings wouldn’t be the same without this score.

But it still gets no love from critics. I’m an exception, someone who can see the flaws but still appreciate its effort at grand tragedy. Mawkish, perhaps, but also soaring and with some good music poking out of many of the repetitive chords. Like Phantom, it’s an overblown musical that has undeniable appeal. I think critics balk because they feel manipulated by it, and that’s a fair point.

That was the older version, at least; the newer version has been tweaked and rewritten in some minor (the sex club is no longer The Red Hat but The Spider’s Web) and major ways (numbers rearranged, new songs added, others ditched, including “Good and Evil”). But the major change, to my ear, is the Idol-ization of the arrangements.

This isn’t meant as a cut against Constantine Maroulis, the former American Idol contestant who has met with success as a stage actor. He has the chops — and the pipes — to go beyond such reductionism, as have Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and more. (Justin Guarini? Not so much.) But just the orchestrations of “Take Me As I Am” and “This is the Moment” have become transparently radio-friendly — call it Jekyll & Hyde: The Remixes. This isn’t a Broadway-style show anymore, not something Barbra or Patti would do. It has been rewritten for the iTunes generation, with lots of flash.

For proof, you need look no further than the second number, which employs video components that call to mind the opening credits for an Incredible Hulk movie; at the end, another video display resembles a Megadeath video I once saw. (It doesn’t help that when Maroulis is wearing his top hat as Hyde, he looks like Slash … though when he sings, he’s more Axl.)

Ultimately, these are reasonable choices made by Wildhorn, director Jeff Calhoun and the producers: To youth-enize the musical while euthanizing its predecessor.

In some ways, it works. Aside from a really freak accent that sounds part Jonathan Pryce, part CW heartthrob, Maroulis’ voice is spectacular, squealing out high notes while simultaneously flouncing his curly mane around like he’s performing a guitar solo. (As Jekyll, he looks like a character from The Big Bang Theory.)

Just as good vocally — and perhaps the most solid acting — is Deborah Cox as Lucy, the prostitute with a heart of gold. Her entrance triggered applause from the fanboys in the audience, and she nails “Someone Like You” and a spectacular duet, “In His Eyes” … though the latter is the only really memorable number in Act 2. (“Dangerous Game” sounds as if it was written to be performed in a dance club; I’m sure it will eventually.)

J&H has always had problems; it still does. Even the plot, with boiling beakers and mad scientist run amok narration feels cribbed from The Fly, Little Shop even Sweeney Todd. But if you can look past those as audiences have done for years, there’s some good singing here — and a very new vision of a musical still yearning to be considered a classic.

Over at DTC, they have a classic in Christmas Carol, once again with Chamblee Ferguson as Scrooge, Liz Mikel as Christmas Past and Joel Ferrell directing. And once again, they’ve found new ways to freshen things up. That’s even more impressive since it’s difficult getting into the holiday mood in 80-degree weather. But you’ll believe the snow. That’s a step in the right direction.

Among the modifications from prior years are Jacob Marley’s death rattle and subsequently sympathetic reappearance, making him more haunting than haunted. Brian Gonzales, fresh from recent stints on Broadway, goes for tortured soul more than spooker.

Even without changes, you can often judge a good Carol by the cuteness factor of Tiny Tim, and this time out it’s through the roof (surprise: He’s played by two alternating girls in drag!). But once again it’s Ferguson — lanky and angular, as much Ichabod as Ebenezer — who guides us through the cold-hearted old sod into avuncular hero expertly, and that is what makes the show work. He’s full of infectious enthusiasm by the end and that translates when you leave the theater.

Which is really part of the fun in seeing this show year in, year out. As always, A Christmas Carol remains as relevant today as in the past. It’s hard listening to Scrooge grouse about the “surplus population” and not imagine the number he’s talking about might be, oh, 47 percent. There are still Scrooges among us; this play at least puts you in the giving spirit and reminds you to enjoy the season. Even when the weather is unseasonably warm.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 7, 2012.

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