Hollywood Boulevard is home to both the Pantages Theatre and Madame Tussauds, and there were times during the new production of "Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical" that I wondered if the two institutions had arranged a secret merger.
This pre-Broadway touring production, which opened Tuesday at the Pantages, combines power singing and theatrical waxworks to retell the Robert Louis Stevenson tale of a doctor with a damnable dark side. The experience of the show, never a critic's darling, can only be compared to watching "American Idol" from inside an amusement park gallery showcasing the fiendish modus operandi of infamous murderers.
Director Jeff Calhoun, who has pulled off some unlikely musical theater coups (including his most recent trick of turning Disney's "Newsies" into a hit), tries to inject new life into this beast, which originally opened on Broadway in 1997.
He has overhauled some of the score's bloat, modernized the staging with projections and a dash of electronic flash, and cast as the leads two singers with rousing styles, "American Idol" contestant Constantine Maroulis and the luminous R&B vocalist Deborah Cox.
But like Dr. Jekyll scrambling to undo the chemical formula that has turned him into a part-time lunatic, Calhoun lacks the fundamental ingredients to pull off the transformation. Which is to say he's stuck with Leslie Bricusse's book and lyrics and Frank Wildhorn's music, and not even the most resourceful chef can make a gourmet meal when bound to a chain restaurant recipe.
Maroulis, who received a Tony nomination for his performance in the musical "Rock of Ages," does double duty as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. Lest you fear not being able to keep these identities straight, let me assure you that the production has a scheme that makes it virtually impossible to confuse the two.
As Jekyll, Maroulis wears his hair in a ponytail, fusses with his little spectacles and speaks in an accent that had me pegging him for a meek exchange student from Eastern Europe. But when transformed into the tempestuous Hyde, Maroulis — losing the glasses and hesitant demeanor — unbinds his tresses, allowing his hair to swing wildly like a male Medusa on the make.
Unplaceable accent aside, the best part of Maroulis' performance is his acting. He brings an indrawn intensity to his portrayal of the derided doctor, whose experiments into the "primitive duality of man" have made him a laughingstock of good London society, caricatured here as a den of freakish hypocrisy. (The supporting cast members look like they were jobbed in from "The Addams Family.")
In his early scenes with Emma (Teal Wicks), Jekyll's devoted fiancée desperately in need of a support group, he cuts an endearing figure as the misunderstood science nerd in love. This tender side keeps us caring for a character who begins to resemble not so much a horror movie monster as a strung-out rock star with a psychotic temper.
Maroulis' singing, while exhilarating at moments, is less steady. He seems to be having some trouble managing his voice, which has a nice scratchy personality but isn't always able to meet the swooping demands of the score or Maroulis' own determination to top the expectations of his fans. But then it's hard to soar night after night when you have such an exhausting musical to-do list and your delivery system is basically programmed for shock and awe.
If this were an "Idol" contest, the women would leave him in the dust. Cox, a singer with nuclear power and a sumptuous tone, turns each of her numbers into a show-stopper.
Playing the brothel worker Lucy Harris, who catches the innocent attention of Jekyll and the more ravenous interest of Hyde, Cox gets to enjoy her own double life on stage — one moment strutting her nasty girl stuff to "Bring on the Men," another tearing her heart out to "Someone Like You."
Wicks, who brings a touch of pertness to the angelic Emma, packs plenty of vocal heat of her own. But it's the clarity of her singing that's most impressive, even if some of Bricusse's lyrics might be better off smudged.
Probably the most famous song in the musical is "This Is the Moment," an anthem occasionally repurposed for sporting events when a big dollop of treacle is called for. Jekyll sings this song just as he's about to turn himself into his own guinea pig. Calhoun stages this chemistry experiment with a touch of comic dazzle, which makes sense since we're all just waiting for Jekyll to run amok. Sentimentality isn't required.
The production grows more discordant and blaring in the second half. By the time Maroulis is called upon to sing a maniacal duet with himself (the song is aptly titled "Confrontation"), the show has turned into a not-so-fun funhouse. Like so many commercially manufactured musicals today, the injunction here is "louder, larger, longer."
To anyone who may have been concerned seeing me totter out of this opening night cacophony, I'm recovering quietly right now in my room at Cedars-Sinai, thanks to massive infusions of Stephen Sondheim and a sympathetic nurse who has buoyed my spirits all through the night with his bedside reading of Noel Coward.