In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a morality tale called The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Henry Jekyll, a respected physician and scientist, is fascinated by the duality of human nature - good and evil existing side by side. In his laboratory he creates a potion that can separate the two and experiments on himself with tragic results. His malignant impulses are isolated in a being called Edward Hyde, who roams about London committing evil acts. The desperate struggle between Jekyll and his own worst nature forms the climax of the story.
Stevenson's tale is brief - about 60 pages - and gives few details of Hyde's activities. In the musical Jekyll and Hyde, now playing at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, dramatist Leslie Bricusse fills out the story with scenes and characters of his invention.
The show opens with a number titled "Facade," in which the chorus declares that many supposedly respectable people are hypocrites. We soon meet some of them. They are members of the board of governors of St. Jude's Hospital - a bishop, a general, a titled lady, a young lord and a knight.
Jekyll tells the governors that his goal is to isolate the evil in people so only good will remain. He asks the hospital to supply a subject for his experiment. The governors react violently, calling his scheme immoral, but as the meeting breaks up and they go their separate ways, their hypocrisy is made plain. The general is a pedophile, the titled philanthropist shows herself to be cruel to ordinary folk, and so on.
The book has no romance, but on the stage Jekyll is loved by two women. One is his fiancee, Emma, daughter of Sir Danvers Carew, chairman of the hospital's board of governors.
Jekyll meets the other woman during a visit to a dive.
Lucy Harris is a seductive but downtrodden prostitute. (She and the chorus do a suggestive dance that some parents might think goes too far for a family audience.) Jekyll resists her advances, but offers his help as a friend.
Forced to use himself as a subject, Jekyll takes his own potion and turns into Hyde. The transformation is impressively managed, with crashes of thunder and rapid changes in lighting.
Roaming by night, Hyde embarks on a career of cruelty and murder.
Jekyll and Hyde is a grim show. Heavy, melodramatic scenes alternate with chorus numbers full of clamor and activity. In his original story, Stevenson is content with one murder, but the stage version has seven. There is a great deal of implied sex. The score by Frank Wildhorn contains only a few actual songs, and they don't have the kind of tunes you'll find yourself humming after you get home.
If you're looking for a cheerful evening at the theater, this show isn't for you. But for a powerful emotional experience, it can't be beat. At the performance I attended, the audience gave it a wild ovation.
As usual at Toby's, the production is first-class. Toby Orenstein's direction and Ilona Kessell's choreography are enhanced by a remarkable array of authentic-looking costumes designed by Judy Holland-Geary.
In an exhausting double role, Russell Sunday convincingly portrays the separate characters of Jekyll and Hyde (his body language as Hyde is particularly good). He depicts the transition from one to the other with chilling effect, and his fine singing voice adds a great deal to the performance.
Janine Gulisano brings an impressive range of dancing, singing and acting ability to the demanding part of Lucy.
Also outstanding are Lonny Smith, who brings life to the thankless role of Jekyll's friend and lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson; David Bosley-Reynolds, who, as Sir Danvers Carew, has the best British accent on the stage; and Laurie Saylor, whose beautiful voice and attractive appearance perfectly suit the role of Emma.
Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents Jekyll and Hyde through Nov. 17. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sunday and Wednesday. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 301-596-6161.