For ‘Jekyll & Hyde,’ there’s constant doctoring
The lithe beauty in the form-fitting, flame-red sweater-jacket, even tighter black slacks and stiletto-heeled shoes with metal buckles planted herself in the lap of a strapping, handsome, lightly bearded fellow and started giving him a come-on in a saucy Cockney accent.
Sitting 12 feet away, a second man watched with intense concentration, eyes fixed on the couple, chin cradled in his palm.
In certain circumstances, this might be some kind of kinky fantasy. But here in a basement rehearsal room at the Pantages Theatre, it was serious show business.
Director Jeff Calhoun and costars Deborah Cox and Constantine Maroulis were engaged in the theatrical equivalent of a quality control inspection Monday afternoon, a day before their revival of the 1990s musical “Jekyll & Hyde” would open a three-week Los Angeles run — part of a lengthy touring prelude to a long-planned arrival on Broadway in early April.
Although a touch of kinkiness is part of the “Jekyll & Hyde” recipe, the director and leading players were concentrating on how to manifest the spark of pure human sympathy between Dr. Henry Jekyll and Lucy, a singing prostitute who plies her trade at a disreputable nightclub in Victorian London.
Cox is a pop-R&B; singer and former Clive Davis protégée who took her first musical theater plunge in 2004, playing the title role in the Broadway production of “Aida.” Maroulis’ lifelong musical-theater ambitions were helped along by his ride as an “American Idol” contestant in 2005; they came to fruition in 2009 when he was nominated for a Tony Award playing an unsung rocker on the 1980s Sunset Strip heavy-metal club scene in “Rock of Ages.”
Maroulis’ current role is considerably more demanding. When not inhabiting the humane but troubled idealist, Jekyll, he becomes Edward Hyde, the vile fellow who emerges, with less tender consequences for Lucy, thanks to the experimental brew the good doctor cooks up and quaffs with the best of medical intentions.
Cox and Maroulis have been performing together eight times a week from coast to coast and back since September. Calhoun, who is based in New York City, was at the Pantages to inspect the state of the play for the first time since December, when he saw the show in Philadelphia.
Part of the critical consensus against “Jekyll and Hyde” during its 1990s Broadway run had been a lack of nuanced characterizations. They’re working on it.
After she and Maroulis had played the scene, Cox told the director she’d been searching for “places to make the connection” that will reveal how a frolic in the lap of a potential trick might touch Lucy’s soul. Maroulis chimed in about his efforts to find ways of conveying, in the same moment, why Jekyll might be drawn to Lucy, despite his engagement to a lovely and proper Victorian fiancée.
To connect these performative dots gradually was the game plan all along. While it’s common for shows to take shape in front of audiences before going to Broadway, the seven-month tour for “Jekyll & Hyde” takes that concept to extremes. There is, however, an element of déjà vu in the approach.
After “Jekyll & Hyde” failed to catch on following its premiere in 1990 at the Alley Theatre in Houston, composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist-script writer Leslie Bricusse retooled the musical and found backers for 12 months of touring in 1995 and 1996. Starring Wildhorn’s then-fiancée and now ex-wife Linda Eder as Lucy, it found an enthusiastic following of repeat customers who called themselves “Jekkies.” The show finally made it to Broadway in spring 1997 and, with almost no help from critics, enjoyed a nearly four-year run.
Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization, was a fan of “Jekyll & Hyde” in its ‘90s incarnation and soon became friends with Wildhorn while developing “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” the second of three Wildhorn musicals (“The Civil War” was the third) that went to Broadway in quick succession.
“It felt to me like it had been enough years” since the first go-round to mount a “Jekyll & Hyde” revival, Scandalios said. “If we could get two people capable of singing the two roles and doing it in a fresh, contemporary way, it would be worth looking at.”
Calhoun, who was coming off a 2012 best director Tony Award nomination for “Newsies,” and a less successful 2011 outing with the Wildhorn-composed “Bonnie & Clyde,” said he was drawn by the chance to work with Cox and Maroulis, actors he was sure could pull off the “sexy and dangerous” essence he felt would be imperative.
Taking a suggestion from scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost, Calhoun has deployed modern video elements and gone for a taste of steampunk — a sensibility that emphasizes the scientific and technical daring, rather than the social proprieties, of the Victorian era in which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his scary 1886 novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Wildhorn and Bricusse were willing to prune a couple of ballads that the director believed had taken the story on non-essential tangents.
“We realized the show benefited from losing some prettiness in the interest of the drama of the piece,” said Bricusse, who also added some spoken dialogue “to get a little more character, a little more humor when the opportunity presents itself.”
In place of the ballads, the creators reintroduced two numbers that had been part of the initial 1990 iteration of “Jekyll & Hyde,” but were later dropped from the show.
Scandalios was keen on giving the revival — and especially its two lead actors — plenty of pre-Broadway touring time “to develop the characters, explore things, trying different things and keeping some.”
The trek began at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, where the Nederlander Organization has long-standing ties with in-house producers Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby. The cast and crew hunkered down for an intensive three weeks of daytime rehearsals and evening performances before launching the tour in San Diego.
Cox and Maroulis were game for the eight-month pre-Broadway commitment — including rehearsals in New York City last August before the September opening in La Mirada — even though it has meant some personal sacrifices.
Maroulis is missing much of the toddlerhood of his 2-year-old daughter with Angel Reed, who’d been part of the “Rock of Ages” ensemble. Cox has two daughters and a son, ages 3 to 9, back home in Florida; she said they are home schooled to give the family more flexibility for periodic reunions during the tour.
“We thought long and hard about embarking on this journey,” said Lascelles Stephens, her husband, manager and onetime record producer. He’d come to L.A. and was sitting in on the rehearsal at the Pantages. “That’s the tough part, being away from them, but they know she’s doing it for them.”
Touring was “a prerequisite” for the gig, Cox said, and she signed on because she wanted the part and could see the advantages of taking a long and winding road to Broadway. “It gives you a chance to really tweak the role and get it into your bones,” she said while joining Maroulis for an interview in the Pantages lobby after their brief rehearsal session with Calhoun.
The director, who impressed Los Angeles, Broadway and national touring audiences during the early and mid-2000s with his work on Deaf West Theatre’s production of the Roger Miller musical “Big River,” likens the approach to the long haul a major league baseball team goes through to contend for a championship — coaching and bonding during spring training and the competitive rigors of the regular season factor into its ability to lift its game come fall.
“It’s all a dance,” said Calhoun, reverting to a more likely metaphor for a theatrical lifer who first worked at the Pantages nearly 33 years ago as a 19-year-old featured dancer in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
“That’s why the three weeks in La Mirada was invaluable, and the six months on the road is invaluable. We continue to analyze and tweak that dance.”
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