March 22nd, 2010

"Jeykll & Hyde: The Musical"

We hadn't even known there was a musical called "Jekyll & Hyde" until passing a poster on the street a couple of weeks ago, announcing that Wauwatosa East High School was doing it March 19-20 and 26-27. When some of the Village Playhouse people recommended it, we decided to go on Saturday evening the 20th and were very glad we did.
The original musical played Broadway from 1997 to 2001, with 1,543 regular performances. It was nominated for a number of awards, won a couple of the Drama Desk awards, wasn't particularly well reviewed, and lost money, which may help explain why it's rather obscure, although it has toured.
Not surprisingly, given the subject matter, one can see influences of both "Phantom of the Opera" and "Sweeney Todd". Georgie and I both noticed musical and stylistic similarities to "The Scarlet Pimpernel," and I'm not surprised to discover that Frank Wildhorn is the composer of both shows. (Wildhorn seems to specialize in adapting classic literary properties for the musical stage. His credits also include "Svengali", "Dracula," "Cyrano De Bergerac, The Musical," and "The Count of Monte Cristo.") The best known song from the piece is "This Is The Moment," which I recognized, perhaps from the Olympic Games, where it has become a popular theme.
The book of the musical, by Leslie Bricusse, adds a number of ideas to Robert Louis Stevenson's story that I think work well. The musical opens with Dr. Jeykll (Ryan Stajmiger) standing over a sedated mental patient strapped down on a gurney. In the song "Lost in the Darkness" Jeykll sings of his desire to find a cure for the man, who, we find at the end of the song, is his father. This gives Jeykll's goal of driving out evil from human nature a focus and a practical application (although the rather nebulous connection between "madness" per se and "evil") is never expanded upon.
Jeykll appeals to the Board of Governors of St. Jude's Hospital to be allowed to experiment upon a human subject, but his request is denied. (This is interesting, since the board, consisting of a Bishop, a General, a lawyer, and two of the nobility, in fact all have vested interests in seeing Jeykll fail. What need would there be for churches if mankind returns to an unfallen state? What would happen to the professions of the law and the army? Whom would the nobility feel morally superior to?) Of course they all couch their objections as the process being "too dangerous."
Denial of access to an experimental subject leads to the action we all know of. In this show the transformation into "Edward Hyde" was done by the simple expedient of Stajmiger releasing his long hair from its tie-back, accompanied by changes in expression, posture and voice that were well done and consistently maintained through the performance. (This reminds me of the famous silent-film treatment by John Barrymore, who only added a wig to become Hyde.) Hyde embarks on a career of vice which ends the first act with his brutal murder of the hypocritical Bishop.
The second act continues Hyde's murder spree taking revenge on the St. Jude's Governors. Meanwhile, Jeykll struggles to bring the incubus under control, with his pending marriage to Emma (Vanessa Libbey), daughter of Jeykll's friend, Sir Danvers Carew, adding desperation and an element of "Frankenstein" to the story.
This whole production was very impressive. The sets were particularly nice (although I didn't really understand the inclusion of the hanging mirror in Jeykll's lab, which seemed only a distraction. Considerable effort went into the costuming for the large cast, although it was evident that many pieces were catch-as-catch-can, with the result that Jeykll wears an evening cutaway coat through out the show, including to a morning meeting, and Sir Danvers Carew wears a morning coat, including to an evening party. Overall, things read well and the effect was enjoyable.
Ryan Stajmiger, a senior, could have a good career ahead of him if he decides to pursue either acting or music. He has a powerful tenor voice that was always right on. He is a skillful and athletic actor who managed the dual role marvelously well, including a Sméagol/Gollum-like mirror debate between Jeykll and Hyde that was managed with the help of no special effects other than changes of light. Equally good were the two female leads, Vanessa Libbey as Emma Carew, singing a role that might have been written for Sarah Brightman, and Magdelyn Monahan as Lucy, the bar girl/prostitute who becomes a victim of Hyde's depredations.
The supporting cast sang, danced, and acted to a very high standard for a high school production generally, although of course some performers were weaker than others. The orchestra for the performance maintained a good level of dynamics and solid tempos throughout the show. The only significant flaw in the performance was the brass section, with both the horn and the trumpets being noticeably out of tune at times.
Performances continue March 26 and 27 at 7:30PM at Wauwatosa East High School. Tickets are $10.00 and may be purchased by check in the Wauwatosa East High School office during regular school hours, or by credit card by calling 773-2110, or at the door.

The Last Station

On Sunday the 21st, we went to the Oriental Theater to see "The Last
Station," which concerns the last days of the author Leo Tolstoy. We
were interested because the trailers looked good, both Christopher
Plummer and Helen Mirren were nominated for Oscars for their
performances, very deservedly as it turns out; also, I knew very little
about the life of Tolstoy and was curious.
The viewpoint character of the film is Valentin Bulgakov, (James McAvoy)
who is hired to act as Tolstoy's secretary overtly, and also to act as a
team member in the tug-of-war between Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti),
the head of the "Tolstoyan movement" and Countess Sophia, Tolstoy's wife
(Mirren). Their long battle is over who has influence and control over
Tolstoy in his last days. Tolstoy has become a near-saint to some, due
to his adoption of an ascetic, collectivist, and non-violent philosophy,
which teaches against private property and in favor of passive
resistance to coercive authority. If this sounds familiar, it is because
Tolstoy's thoughts, set down in "The Kingdom of God is Within You,"
influenced Gandhi, among others. Chertkov is determined to cement
Tolstoy's saintly image by getting him to put his literary work,
including rights to "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" and other works,
into the public domain as a grand gesture against private ownership.
Sophia, who rightly views these as the family treasure, is just as
determined to hang onto the works she feels she helped create and secure
the rights for herself and her children, and uses every tool at her
command to maintain a grip on her husband's life. Tolstoy (Plummer) is
whipsawed between his principles and Chertkov's moral suasions on the
one hand, and his love for family and Sophia's fierce protectiveness of
her prerogatives on the other. Bulgakov, who comes into the fray as a
fervent Tolstoyan (anarchist, pacifist, vegetarian, celibate), is first
with Chertkov but rapidly begins to have sympathy for the Countess'
embattled position.
Ultimately, the aged Tolstoy, who has come to the "anything for a quiet
life" stage, can no longer stand being caught between Sophia's fiery
passion and Chertkov's glacial pressure and flees his home, taking the
local railway as far south as it goes, to the "last station" of the
title. Although Chertkov is a sincere Tolstoyan (and remained so until
his death in 1936) he comes off the heavy in the film, and, indeed,
although he speaks of "love of mankind" as Tolstoy does, it seems a
chilly kind of love that has no room for "sentiment" or "Romanticism,"
which the character roundly condemns.
Helen Mirren has the stand-out performance here as the scene-chewing
Countess. It's too much, however, to call her character a "drama
queen"-she knows very well what she is doing and uses every lever she
can find to accomplish her purpose, without shame or remorse. Plummer
is just as good as the tired old man who's trying to keep a low profile
in his declining years. They are well supported by Giamatti, McAvoy, and
Kerry Condon as the anarchist teacher who takes Valentin's virginity,
and Anne-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter, Sasha, (Alexandra Lvovna),
who is also wounded in the war raging around her parents.
Highly recommended for fans of historical bio-pics. I thought it was
very well done overall, and is apparently well-regarded by the current
Tolstoy clan, although it does show an earthy side to their 'saintly'
ancestor. The film does contain one sex scene and some tasteful partial
nudity. The performances by Mirren and Plummer are well worth the price
of admission.