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Lure of a Thriller 

Oft-told gothic tale shines in unpretentious production

It's just possible that the most persuasive character in the current Curtain Call Repertory Theatre production of Jekyll & Hyde did not appear onstage. At the opening-night performance, an attractive young teenage girl sat next to the veteran pianist at the side of the stage, dutifully turning the pages of the piano score. During the early going, the teenager was focused on her task. But as the evening progressed and the plot thickened, her ever-enlarging eyes kept veering up to the stage. She was hooked. In true Jekyll-and-Hyde tradition, her attention was split between obligation and fascination. The drudge of turning pages could not compete with the lure of a gothic thriller about multiple personalities, murder and revenge.

That rapt girl epitomized most of the audience, for it's easy to get caught up in the uncluttered good fun of this unpretentious community-theater production.

Most viewers probably assume that Jekyll & Hyde is a musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but that's not quite the case. More accurately, it is a distillation of that novella's various movie adaptations, especially the 1931 release that starred Fredric March in the dual roles. All the films have played fast and loose with the source material, and always for the same reason. Stevenson's original story, a moral and intellectual allegory about "the primitive duality of man," is dense stuff. To be effectively dramatized, it requires the addition of some high drama.

As far back as 1920 -- in the memorable silent-film version starring John Barrymore -- screenwriters began to add women to the plot. (Stevenson's novella does not include a single female character.) Today most people incorrectly think that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about a man whose dual nature is split between his ennobling love for an idealized fiancée and his base lust for an uneducated music-hall singer. In fact, that storyline was layered on by Hollywood. Yet, once again, that embroidered tale is told here, through lush melody.

It even sounds lush when the musical ensemble comprises just three pieces (piano, keyboard and percussion). If anything, the simplicity of this vest-pocket production seems to work to the show's benefit. Most of the original Broadway trappings -- elaborate sets and lighting, for instance -- have, of necessity, been omitted. What remains is Frank Wildhorn's music, which, when shorn of lugubrious orchestrations, turns out to be surprisingly engaging.

Dennis Shelton brings a clear tenor voice to his earnest Dr. Jekyll. Except for the transitional sequences when Jekyll morphs into the evil Hyde (which could benefit from more imagination), Shelton delivers an admirably straightforward performance. As the diminutive music-hall singer who yearns for a new life, Rebecca Schene is a veritable thrush, a robin red-breast whose compact frame contains hidden strength. Her rendition of the popular "Someone Like You" is a full-throated knockout.

The ensemble numbers are sung with precision and clarity. Too often, songs performed by large choruses sound like mush. Here, the lyrics are crystal-clear. On the other hand, director/choreographer Glenn Guillermo would have been well advised to eliminate the choreography altogether. Why inform the viewer that these impressive singers are not equally nimble dancers? It's often wise to play to your strengths and cut your losses.

When -- after an unprecedented six years of highly publicized out-of-town travail -- Jekyll & Hyde finally opened in New York in 1997, it was met with haughty disdain. Many detractors deemed it little more than an opportunistic clone of The Phantom of the Opera. It remained a musical pariah, the victim of its own success, for nearly four years and 1,543 performances. But it's difficult to imagine the fatally overblown Phantom surviving this sort of pared-down production.

So there's nothing to disdain here. On the contrary, it's easy to overlook flaws in a production whose limitations are transformed into virtues. For the undemanding viewer out for a good time, Jekyll & Hyde provides a hummable treat.

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