Blaming the critics: "Jekyll and Hyde' in Media

Meltdown in Media

Ludt: Charming.
Ludt: Charming.

I didn't intend to write about the Media Theatre's production of Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's musical, Jekyll and Hyde. Instead, on opening night I tagged along with my colleague Wendy Rosenfield, who went to cover the show for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Media Theatre had asked the Inky to send another critic. The theater's complaint: Rosenfield doesn't like melodrama, has said as much in her past articles, and the Media's current show— as the company put it in the program—is "pure melodrama." However, when confronted with the choice of a Rosenfield review or no review at all, well….

Unfortunately, the evening's melodrama extended beyond the final curtain. As the actors took their bows, Media's visibly distraught artistic director, Jesse Cline, went on stage. Grabbing a microphone from one of the performers, he advised the crowd that there was a reviewer in the audience who was "probably going to trash the show" (judge for yourself, here). If those present liked what they saw, Cline asked, would they please go out and tell a friend?

Then Cline marched down the aisle to the spot where Wendy and I were seated. After admonishing Wendy for even showing up, he noticed me for the first time and expressed his disappointment that I was there as well. Wagging his finger at me, he said— exact words— "No review from you." Then he spent five minutes berating both of us about our past reviews of his company. Waving his arm toward the now-empty stage, he wailed, "Why would you want to harm them?"

An Indiana Congressman once observed, "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel." Note to theatrical directors: These days ink is irrelevant. Never argue with someone who has access to the Internet— which could be just about anyone.

Turning friends into enemies

Perhaps some critics go out of their way to insult performers, as Cline seems to believe. But I was charmed by Patrick Ludt's vocals as Media's Jekyll/Hyde. I took the long SEPTA ride out to Media only because I wanted to hear Elisa Matthews sing again. In my opinion, her lovely voice is one of the Philadelphia region's most underutilized talents. Ludt, Matthews and Trish Jeffery (as the prostitute Lucy) together rendered Leslie Bricusse's juvenile lyrics into something, if not always enjoyable, then at least unnoticeable.

As for "harming" performers, I freely admit to writing articles— not to mention sending private correspondence to directors— designed to convince certain performers either to improve their craft or find another line of work. It's the same thing I do as a consumer when I open a rancid box of Cheerios.

Among his other complaints, Cline accused Rosenfield of pursuing "an agenda." Had he leveled that charge at me, I would have pleaded guilty. My agenda consists of wanting to see the best theater possible.

Dropping the ball

Media's production of Jekyll and Hyde fell well short of this goal. The musical starts off intriguingly: Jekyll wishes to chemically eliminate evil from human nature and must battle the moral hypocrisy that forbids his experiments by using himself as a guinea pig. Initially, it reminded me of Ibsen's Enemy of the People, perhaps the most compelling individual-versus-society play ever written.

But for a proclaimed melodrama, Cline's direction dropped the ball on these high stakes by failing to establish any clear or exciting antagonisms, whether between Jekyll and his paramour rival Stride, the cardboard cutouts of a Bishop, dowager and military man, or even between Jekyll and his Hyde. And not to quibble, but where in 1888 did a scientist find a piece of clear plastic tubing for his laboratory?

I've grown accustomed to seeing the same metal scaffolding sets used repeatedly in Media's productions (a forgivable offense when the savings are spent, as they are here, on hiring amazing vocalists). But is it too much to expect the lighting, at least, to create a milieu? Instead I was asked to believe a bishop would take a stroll with a prostitute in near-daylight. And Alisa Stamps's clunky choreography was more horrifying than any of the murders committed on stage.

But please, continue to blame the messenger.♦

To read responses, click here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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