Review: Rep strips 'Jekyll' and finds its soul

Posted at 03/20/2012 12:05 PM | Updated as of 03/20/2012 5:22 PM
Jett Pangan plays a menacing Mr. Hyde in Repertory Philippines' "Jekyll & Hyde." Photo by Raul Montesa provided by Repertory Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – When Repertory Philippines stripped the musical “Jekyll & Hyde” down to the bare essentials, without the high-tech gimmickry that marked its Broadway run, it unearthed a moving melodrama that allowed its talented cast to truly shine.

It’s a brave decision for director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo to tinker around a popular Broadway material. The musical’s signature “prop” – a ponytail wig that also “transforms” when Jekyll turns into Hyde – is almost akin to the falling chandelier from “Phantom of the Opera” or the helicopter from “Miss Saigon.”

The Broadway musical is also known for setting a man on fire and a blood-red stage with sets that glide into place from various directions.

Rep not only decided against such staging stunts -- Lauchengco-Yulo and set designer Joey Gonzalez-Mendoza actually came up with their own original design. The entire set has been re-imagined as a Victorian operating theater, suggested by a series of bleachers from where the chorus surveys the main action.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is familiar even to those who haven’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella as it has been made into various movies. Essentially, it’s about a doctor who hopes to isolate man’s evil side in order to help his mentally ill father. When the hospital’s board members refuse to allow him to perform human tests, Jekyll decided to use himself as the subject.

But the experiment goes awry when his alter-ego, the evil Mr. Hyde, threatens to take over his entire person.

The musical’s book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, whose works include “Stop the World I Want to Get Off” and “Victor/Victoria,” tend to be didactic, with repeated recitations of man’s good-vs-evil duality. The group number “Façade” is reprised several times throughout the musical.

The score by Frank Wildhorn seems inspired by other “dark” musicals, notably “Sweeney Todd” (with a touch of “Les Miserables”) but it also features several lovely ballads such as the wistful “Someone Like You,” the duet “Take Me As I Am” and, of course, the anthemic “This is the Moment.”

Focus on actors

By doing away with the stage spectacle, the focus was redirected to the actors – and rightly so.

Indeed, the big stunt in Rep’s latest production is the casting of actor-rock icon Jett Pangan in the title role and Tanghalang Pilipino member Kalila Aguilos in the pivotal role of Lucy. Add the return of visiting London-based actor Junix Inocian to the Rep stage and you’ve got enough star power to rival any stage pyrotechnic.

Lauchengco-Yulo actually enlarged Inocian’s role as Jekyll’s lawyer and best friend, John Utterson. In the original, John is just one of two narrators; but in Rep’s version, he is the only one, and Inocian successfully anchors the musical with his precise delivery and clear tones.

As Jekyll’s fiancé Emma, Cris Villongco is fast-becoming the go-to ingénue. Among the characters, Emma could well be the only one who’s pure. Villongco has a sweet soprano, which was well utilized in the ballad “Once Upon a Dream.”

The revelation here is Aguilos, who effortlessly stands out with her earthy presence and deeply internalized performance. As the prostitute Lucy who falls for Jekyll, Aguilos was simply real, in contrast to the highly mannered and artificial Victorian society. She also successfully projects the character as the true antithesis to Jekyll/Hyde – a woman yearning to be freed from her “bad girl” life.

What she lacks in vocal power, Aguilos more than makes up for it with emotion. There’s a certain sadness in her voice that provides an extra nuance to the dreamy lyrics of “Someone Like You” and the optimism of “A New Life” that they become almost heartbreaking.

Two actors, one role

Rep actually cast two actors in the title role. Apart from Pangan, Rep veteran Michael Williams also plays the lead in some performances. Both have different attacks to the role such that it becomes difficult –and maybe even unfair -- to compare them.

Still, I’ll go out on a limb with this: In a nutshell, Williams is very impressive as Jekyll but Pangan is deliciously wicked as Hyde.

Williams hasn’t had a role as meaty as this for a while and theatergoers are reminded just how powerful William’s voice is. His rendition of “This is the Moment” will make you forget any of the pop renditions that have won singing contests or used as faux-inspirational numbers in concerts and pageants. As far as Williams’ career goes, this moment is up there with his stirring “Stars” in “Les Miserables.”

While Williams provides an emotional attack to the role, Pangan knows that Jekyll/Hyde is also a star turn and he gladly gives it that edge. Among the notable performers who have played the role are Skid Row lead vocalist Sebastian Bach, UK singer Paul Nicholas and pop singer Jack Wagner, while “American Idol” contestant Constantine Maroulis is set to star in a Broadway revival later this year.

Pangan has a stage swagger, which is evident even early on as Jekyll. But when he turns into Hyde, Pangan is in full rock star mode. The transformation is crystal clear. He gives Hyde an obvious slouch, a creepy stare and his voice gains power. (He seems to be holding back as Jekyll.)

While Williams anchors Hyde on repressed anger, Pangan’s Hyde is pure menace, as if he was inspired by “A Clockwork Orange” or perhaps Ozzy Osborne.

Pangan’s big moment is “Confrontation,” a showy “duet” between Jekyll and Hyde as they battle for control. Using body twitches, he switches from one character to the next, complete with all the various affectations he employed to delineate the two. Pangan's mad performance in that song totally vindicates Lauchengco-Yulo’s directorial instincts to ditch the toupee.

But while “Jekyll & Hyde” is a star vehicle, Lauchengco-Yulo also truly shines with her very assured direction. Her handling of the chorus – one of the strongest ever assembled in recent memory – was not only effective, it also had real function, providing the necessary movement -- literally and figuratively – to propel the story despite an immobile set.

But more importantly, she brought back the musical’s soul, highlighting the wonderful songs, the dark yet compelling story and the tragic love story that have been buried by Broadway’s excesses.

Repertory Philippines' "Jekyll & Hyde" runs at Onstage in Greenbelt 1, Makati City until April 15.