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Three Acts

Love, hate, death, taxes, etc

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Legend has it that the plot for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Robert Louis Stevenson fully formed in a dream. That certainly makes for good mythmaking, but the story borrows from too many sources to be a purely divine gift from Stevenson's muse.

The sweet-natured scientist Henry Jekyll wants to cure evil (madness) with chemicals, and his story is clearly influenced by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, popular British folk tales about Sweeney Todd, the historical case of Jack the Ripper, and any number of tracts advising against the recreational use of opiates. The musical Jekyll and Hyde, from the writing team of Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn, is relatively true to the conservative spirit of Stevenson's phantasmagoria wherein we learn that heretical science creates nothing but monsters and upstanding men sometimes have an eye for dirty girls.

Jekyll and Hyde should be particularly interesting in the 21st century, as mood-altering drugs have become common and political debates rage over issues such as cloning and stem-cell research. But somehow the current production at Playhouse on the Square just seems quaint, even at its most spine-tingling.

There's an adage in the theater: Show, don't tell. Nobody told Bricusse and Wildhorn. Their Henry Jekyll is more obsessed with recitative than mad science and his nasty alter ego repeatedly faces the audience and sings, "It's the feeling of being alive! Filled with evil but truly alive! It's the feeling of being Edward Hyde!" We get it the first time.

Like Stevenson's original, Jekyll and Hyde is something of a mutt taking a trick or two from Andrew Lloyd Webber, the best bits from Cabaret, and a dash (but not nearly enough) from Sweeney Todd. The show's centerpiece love song, "Once Upon a Dream," sounds like it might have been cut from Disney's Beauty and the Beast for being too obvious.

Whenever Playhouse mounts a horror story (campy or creepy), they bring in guest director Scott Ferguson. I'm beginning to wonder why. Although Ferguson's done wonders with shows like Rocky Horror, his productions have grown increasingly flat, with Jekyll and Hyde the flattest to date. Still, Jekyll and Hyde is watchable and often entertaining due to the strength of the source material and some outstanding principals. But the somnambulant chorus just gets in the way and slows things down.

Through July 25th

Shakespeare Shrugged

Forgive me for asking, but is Shakespeare's R&J a scam to collect royalties off the long-dead Bard? The play, about four students at a repressive boys-only school, is 95 percent Shakespeare. The remaining text (10 minutes or less on stage) is abstract, ritualistic, and repetitive: The boys conjugate in Latin or read morally ridiculous, man-centric aphorisms about relationships. And then they sneak off to the woods to act out Romeo and Juliet using nothing but some red cloth to represent the set, costumes, and properties. All in all, it's compelling stuff, if a bit of a con.

From a performance aspect, one of the most attractive things about Shakespeare's original text is that it begins with all the classic elements of a comedy but ends with a mess of dead bodies. While the production of Shakespeare's R&J at Circuit Playhouse invites the occasional chuckle, it makes its seriousness known from the top. We're shown all the sickness of love but little of the giddiness, and that's a bit of a debit.

And now to complain about too much of a good thing: Director Dave Landis has put together a tight ensemble, and in various roles, Kyle Hatley, Anders Reynolds, Michael Ingersoll, and Evan Linder shine. But there's something to the maxim "Never let 'em see you sweat." The quartet works so hard that the play's action, clearly defined by Landis, gets lost in all of the showboating. And you can't really enjoy the fireworks, if the sky doesn't go dark sometimes. Can you?

Through July 11th

Take It Away

Before there was The Munsters (or, for that matter, the Patriot Act), there was Kaufman and Hart's zany comedy You Can't Take It With You about a family of wild eccentrics whose pretty (and pretty normal) daughter wants to marry into respectable society. The lovely ingénue's grandpa collects snakes and doesn't believe in paying income taxes. Her dad makes fireworks in the basement, while mom writes bohemian, politically charged plays she never finishes. Her dizzy sister takes ballet from a crazed Russian, and her brother-in-law prints violent revolutionary tracts -- not because he's a violent revolutionary but because he just likes printing. Throw in a drunken actress and some members of the Justice Department, and you've got everything you need for either a modern political tragedy or an antique comedy that seems absolutely up-to-date.

Though a bit rough around the edges, Theater Memphis' production has more than its share of bright moments, largely due to Mary Buchignani's absurd hoofing and some superb straight-faced comedy from Barry Fuller, Laurie Cook-McIntosh, Allen Busby, and Janie Paris. n

Through June 27th

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