I thought I had anger and self-control issues…until I saw the new Quad City Music Guild production of “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Seeing the last dress rehearsal, I was blown away by this operatic, mesmerizing musical. Easily the best Guild show I have seen in a LONG time — it is visually, musically, and emotionally stunning, with breathtaking performances from leads Taylor Bley, Megan Warren and Ariela Policastro. (Talk about a killer show…)
Based on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale (set in 1888 London), the epic struggle between good and evil comes to thrilling life on stage at Prospect Park (1584 34th Ave., Moline), with an evocative tale of two men – one a doctor, passionate and romantic; the other a terrifying madman – and two women – one, beautiful and trusting; the other beautiful and trusting only herself.
Both women (the upper-class Emma, Dr. Jekyll’s fiancée, and lower-class dancer Lucy) are in love with the same man and both unaware of his dark secret.
A devoted man of science, Dr. Henry Jekyll is driven to find a chemical breakthrough that can solve some of mankind’s most challenging medical dilemmas. Rebuffed by the powers that be, he decides to make himself the subject of his own experimental treatments, accidentally unleashing his inner demons along with the murderous man that the world would come to know as Mr. Hyde.
With this outstanding Music Guild show directed and music directed by the husband-and-wife team of Heather Herkelman and David Baxter (who starred here as the title roles of Guild’s 2019 “Beauty and the Beast”), this “Jekyll & Hyde” can be thought of “Two Beauties and the Beast.”
In her insightful director’s note, Herkelman said the story is meant to show the gray area that exists within all of us. “The duality of man is a complex and fascinating concept and the title character in this musical shows us that maybe the line between good and evil is not so distinct.”
This is clearly a labor of love for the couple and the entire cast and crew, including a first-class orchestra. They don’t merely attempt a faithful reflection of this dark, disturbing story – they own it, with the utmost confidence, care and professional artistry.
Herkelman wrote that her directing debut at Music Guild is a profound honor not only because she got engaged on this very stage, but she’s been acting here since she was 17. That high schooler “would have been shocked and proud that she gets to direct a whole production in this significant place 18 years later,” the program says. She should be very proud of this towering achievement.
One of Herkelman’s best initial decisions was hiring Luke Vermeire to do the scenic design. Before a word is uttered on stage, we’re treated to a strikingly elegant tableau of the 19h-century setting, including period-appropriate street lamps and a moody London skyline backdrop.
That painted backdrop is effectively used throughout the show, with key changes in lighting (the great lighting design is by John Weigandt), and color – ranging from gray and blue, to red, orange, pink and purple, often complementing the atmosphere or costumes on stage.
“Jekyll & Hyde” is a show flooded with atmosphere and Music Guild nails it with such clarity and surging passion, poignance and power. With gorgeous music by Frank Wildhorn and tense, super-dramatic book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, this production is operatic in its sweep, tragedy, heightened, huge emotions and tunefully copious in the nearly all sung-through score.
Of course, the title character must be cast right and Taylor Bley puts the phrase “giving it 110 percent” to shame. His vocal and acting prowess and pyrotechnics are spectacular to behold, and his tireless, enthusiastic dedication to both demanding roles is awe-inspiring.
An actor does his job right if he makes you believe he is the character, and Bley not only achieves that brilliantly, in differentiating between the noble Jekyll and twisted Hyde, he thankfully does not go overboard in creating a cartoonish, bloodthirsty mass murderer. That line again is scarily thin.
Bley literally is upright and upstanding as the good doctor (later hunched over, growling and threatening as Hyde), and he proposes to the hospital Board of Governors to plumb the depths of man’s soul, get inside the tortured mind and separate out the evil from men’s minds. The entire story treads that tenuous line, asking “when does intelligence give way to madness?”
The conservative board thinks Jekyll already has gone mad and opposes his creating a potion to test as a human experiment. We glimpse the ideal life the doctor dreams of, with the sweet, strong-willed Emma (a wonderful Megan Warren), and the couple’s strong duet, “Take Me As I Am” is lovely, swelling and surging.
I had never seen the 2022 Augustana graduate Ariela Policastro in a lead role before (she was in the blissful, high-energy “How to Succeed in Business” musical on campus in 2019), and she blows the roof off the Music Guild theater as the luscious Lucy. Hers is a dark, magnetic, controlled presence, with a ringing, belting voice that’s jaw-droppingly impressive.
Policastro makes quite a first impression in the show’s Red Rat club, as she’s sexy and seductive with the other black-and-red clad female dancers in “Bring on the Men.” Herkelman not only serves as director, but supplies the enticing choreography here as well.
Bley clearly delineates his frightening transition, starting with the forceful, authoritative “This is the Moment,” continuing in “The Transformation” and the electrifying “Alive,” when in a way he fully becomes himself when he becomes Mr. Hyde.
With the potion’s side effects, Bley writhes in pain, and is taken over by the animalistic, aggressive personality (with a deeper, more gravelly voice), where society’s chains have been unshackled. As Hyde, he freely roams the streets of London while tormenting innocent bystanders, which includes a sexually abusive encounter with Lucy.
We see Lucy’s more innocent dreams, in the riveting and sensationally stirring solo songs, “Someone Like You” and “A New Life,” near the close of Act I and II, respectively. Both are beautiful, heartbreaking highlights of the show.
Warren shines equally in her Act II solo “Once Upon a Dream,” and the two women again bring the house down with their overpowering duet “In His Eyes,” which simply has each of them on opposite sides of the stage (curtain closed), lit by intense spotlights, and the dazzling magnificence of their voices is just tremendous.
The solid ensemble also displays great harmonies and their “Murder, Murder” at the top of Act II is exciting and appropriately ominous, ending with neat red lighting, and a crouched pose shrouded in fog (which often also stalks the stage).
The climactic moment of “Jekyll & Hyde” (the last of many) is when Bley performs the astoundingly challenging “Confrontation” near the end of the show, a bitter battle between the two personalities. Herkelman, Weigandt and the supremely talented actor present a harrowing tour de force. With lighting, vocal and posture changes, we can clearly see the lines as delivered by Jekyll and Hyde, and the frantic, demonic scene is hair-raising and spine-tingling.
Music Guild’s excellent cast includes Joel Kolander, Mark McGinn, Aaron Deneckre, Olivia Lyman, Erin Platt (in two very different roles) and Julie Hummel. This truly lives up to QCMG’s tagline of “Broadway in the Park,” as you could easily imagine the leads on the Great White Way.
I was disappointed to learn that Policastro is leaving the Q-C for her Chicago area home, to start a new teaching job, but hopefully she will be back to Prospect Park in future summers. What an amazingly promising talent, and at such a young age!
“Jekyll & Hyde” will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, Aug. 11-13, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14 (the audio description show is Aug. 13). Tickets are $16 for adults, $11 for children (12 and under), available by calling 309-762-6610 or by visiting the QCMG website.