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Designing Jekyll and Hyde On Broadway, designer Tobin Ost isn't a perfect Victorian

By LINDA BUCHWALD

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Tobin Ost is not interested in being Victorian. Or at least not slavishly so. He might be designing sets and costumes for the Broadway revival of Jekyll & Hyde, now at the Marriott Marquis, but if it helps him tell a story, he's happy to manipulate the style of 19th century England.

That might surprise audiences expecting a period version of the musical, which has a score by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Based on the 1886 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, it follows a scientist who tries to separate good from evil and ends up turning himself into the evil Mr. Hyde.

For Ost, the implications of that transformation are more significant than a particular historical era. "The story is hard-edged and aggressive, and we needed to find ways to make it sinister and dangerous onstage as well," he says. To that end, Ost looked at materials that could exist in Victorian England but also feel contemporary. For example, when Dr. Jekyll, played by Constantine Maroulis, transforms into Mr. Hyde, he doesn't drink a potion. He uses a large contraption with colored liquids and wires to inject himself with a drug, which Ost felt would have more contemporary resonance and be more stage worthy and frightening.

 However, Ost and director Jeff Calhoun---who have collaborated for a decade on musicals like Newsies and Bonnie and Clyde---misfired at least 4 times before landing on a design idea that could support the entire production.

One of their first concepts was spending the evening in an operating room that was segmented into pieces. As the story became more and more insane, those pieces would have turned on themselves like a Ferris wheel. "While visually that can be very compelling, when you put it up against the rest of the story, it wasn't worth sacrificing spatially the movement of actors and so many other aspects for one or two evocative looks," Ost says. "It really has to be something that can sustain being in whorehouses, at high-end events and galas, being in cathedrals, being in alleyways. It kind of goes everywhere, and so it would have been pretty self-serving just to leave it with one beautiful image and to hell with everything else."

Ost and Calhoun did keep aspects of that initial design, such as the use of subway tile. "One thing that was important to Jeff---and key to the story---is the duality of human nature, the good and the bad," Ost says. "It was important to him and also to the projectionist to have surfaces that on one side were light and on the other side were dark. Hence the subway tile, and then this kind of steady, dark, grotty plasterwork on the reverse side."

For the costumes, Ost collaborated with hair and wig designer Charles G. LaPointe and make-up designer Joe Dulude II to create an overall look that again could feel contemporary and transcend Victorian cliché. "Even though it may be historically accurate, it doesn't mean it's going to be overly flattering to your lead actors, so we certainly took a lot of liberties," he says. He was inspired by runway fashion, especially Alexander McQueen, and the idea was to take interesting silhouettes of the period, using 1886 as a springboard, and then streamline them and make them more severe.

Ost also worked closely with projection designer Daniel Brodie and lighting designer Jeff Croiter. In this production, walls move, with images frequently projected onto them. Ost says that the three elements need to be considered together like a puzzle, without one dominating the other two. "You never want to bring the show to a screeching halt because of getting a piece of scenery out there, and that’s one of the great aspects of being able to use projection and light. The physical production can be all of those things, and it allows you to move seamlessly from one location to the next without waiting for yet another piece of scenery to come rumbling out onstage."

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Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science. Photo by Chris Bennion