“Did anyone laugh?” James Whale asks his gardener, Clayton Boone, in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters. Clayton had just caught Whale’s movie, The Bride of Frankenstein, on TV the night before. Covering, and afraid of insulting his employer, Clayton lies: “No.” “Pity,” replies Whale. “People are so earnest nowadays.” Shocked, Clayton asks, “Why? Was it supposed to be funny?” “Of course!” cries Whale. “I had to make it interesting for myself, you see. A comedy about death. The trick is not to ruin it for anyone who isn’t in on the joke.”
Jekyll & Hyde is in on the joke. It is a gleefully ham-fisted revival, complete with wonderfully literal sets—a pimp named Spider (David Benoit) has decorated his whorehouse like a web—while Jekyll’s (Constantine Maroulis) cursive scroll is superimposed behind the actors, gravely contemplating the “primitive duality of man” and the nature of evil, akin to the narrator’s closing lines in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the tradition of the great Universal horror movies, and their descendants, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond, Jekyll & Hyde has fun with death. And like Superman and Clark Kent, Henry Jekyll, shedding his glasses and the hair tie that holds his ponytail in place, is absolutely unidentifiable as Edward Hyde. In the musical’s climax, when he confronts his alter ego, the murderer sings to the poor doctor from a large portrait in his study, his lyrics underlined by digitally projected fireballs. It’s a cornball blast.
The genius of Jekyll & Hyde is that it never betrays its self-knowledge. The easiest way to ruin a B-movie—or, I suppose, a B-musical—is to wink at the audience, to let them know that you know, in fact, how ridiculous it all is, and that you are above the material. Mr. Maroulis is indefatigably sincere, belting out his songs like a pop pro and agonizing over his situation like Lon Chaney Jr., while Deborah Cox, playing the prostitute Lucy, has the pipes to match him. The supporting cast, wearing thick mascara and speaking in the kind of British accents actors playing Nazis in black and white movies used to use, fill the streets of London with deliciously seedy hypocrites. “There’s a face that we wear,” sings the chorus as if it were a new revelation, “In the cold light of day / It’s society’s mask / It’s society’s way / And the truth is / That’s it’s all a façade!”
Robert Louis Stevenson is best enjoyed by eager pre-teens who relish his expertly written adventures. Now, a new generation is discovering the child-like joys of one of his best works at the Marquis Theatre—for a limited run of thirteen weeks, or, let’s hope, even longer.