Terry Helland, director of Desert Stages Theatre's Jekyll and Hyde, took the stage just before curtain. "This show is the most difficult I've ever worked on," he announced cheerfully. "But I think I got a handle on it."
That didn't seem likely, somehow. Directors typically produce crap and think it's genius, so when one gets up before curtain and acts all self-effacing, there's usually trouble ahead.
It's not that I haven't been surprised in the past by this tiny Scottsdale company. A couple of summers ago, its production of Cabaret completely bowled me over. Last year at this time, I was pleasantly surprised by its better-than-average South Pacific.
Desert Stages Theatre
Jekyll and Hyde
continues through August 9 at 4720 N. Scottsdale Rd. in Scottsdale. Call 480-483-1664 or visit www.desertstages.com.
But I've never really liked the Jekyll and Hyde musical, written by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse and based, of course, on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. I saw a workshop of it featuring Broadway star Linda Eder about 15 years ago and, later, a slightly less sinister production starring David Hasselhoff. I found the score unremarkable and all the cape-wearing and changing-into-the-bad-guy stuff tiresome.
Then, about 15 minutes into Desert Stages' small, stripped-down, theater-in-the-round production, there came a revelation. Jeffry David Skiba, who's been handed the potentially campy roles of the good Dr. Jekyll and the vile Mr. Hyde, opened his mouth to sing, and I stopped worrying that this production would play out like an extended MadTV sketch and began instead to count the minutes until his next solo.
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His acting wasn't bad, either. In a role that always teeters on parody, Skiba brings some subtlety to a pair of leads that are essentially archetypes: an upstanding Brit with good intentions and a pretty fiancée, and a hunchbacked, drooling murderer with a yen for hookers. Skiba distinguishes between the good doctor and the nasty whore-killer mostly with simple shifts in posture and diction, but by the time we got to "The Transformation" — the number in which he drinks a smoky beaker of potion and becomes the bad guy — it barely mattered if the fellow could act. We'd already been blown away by Skiba's powerhouse rendition of "This Is the Moment," the show's "big" number, sung with all the bravado and technical skill of a seasoned star of opera. I'm pretty certain I've never been to a community theater production of anything where audience members shouted "bravo!" after a solo; now I have.
Skiba is buoyed by an unusually talented supporting cast. Jennifer White, as Emma, is a demure but big-voiced ingénue whose duet with Skiba on "Take Me as I Am" is a showstopper. Her counterpart, Lindsey LaFollette, plays a singing prostitute with sensitivity and grace, where usually she's portrayed as a slag with a nice set of pipes.
Helland has gotten more than just, as he put it, "a handle on" this production. He crowds the stage with more than a dozen players at one time, yet they're always in motion, always providing us with some interesting configuration or choreographed bits of business to look at. He has not only managed to overcome the complex blocking of theater-in-the-round staging (never once is the players' repeated spinning to face each side of the house redundant or over-obvious), he's made a bland and hard-to-stage musical into a thrilling evening of theater.