Back when Alan Stentiford was in middle school, before his dream of being an actor was even fully formed, he had a homework assignment to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And his mom, Eleanor, decided to read it along with him.
“We’d take turns reading it to each other,” he recalls.
Flash forward some 15 years, and the Dix Hills actor is now tackling a two-for-one theatrical challenge, starring as driven scientist Henry Jekyll and his raging alter ego Edward Hyde in the musical “Jekyll & Hyde — The Musical,” the first production in the 50th anniversary season of Port Jefferson's Theatre Three running through Oct. 26.
Stentiford, 27, has dedicated the performance to his mother, though, sadly, she will not be in the audience to see her son perform what he calls his “dream role.” After a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer, Eleanor succumbed to the disease in April.
Like many a dutiful actor, Stentiford has channeled the emotions linked to that loss into his performance. In a curious way, this personal tragedy and several other unexpected factors — his acting coach, for example, just happens to be Robert Cuccioli, the Tony Award nominee who originated the role on Broadway — seem to have guided him to this particular show at this particular time in his life.
“I know she helped me get the part,” Stentiford says of his mother, “because I’ve been wanting this for a while.”
A longtime fan
The classic tale of man’s dual nature — the refined, moral Jekyll is transforming into the violent, untamed pleasure seeker Hyde after drinking a potion — has thrilled since its first publication in 1886 and has inspired a slew of stage and screen versions.
“Just playing Jekyll or Hyde would be challenging, but playing both is one of the biggest demands you can make of an actor,” says Theatre Three artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel, who helmed this production. To play both effectively, he says, a performer must be able to evoke “Jekyll’s introspection, his gentility, and Hyde’s animal nature.”
And then there’s the singing. As musicals go, this one — with music by Frank Wildhorn, and book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse — is a heavy lift. The male lead must sing almost nonstop and rarely gets a chance to leave the stage.
But Stentiford was determined. As a child, he discovered the characters when they popped up in the 1994 animated film “The Pagemaster.” Then came the 1997 Broadway musical, which his grandfather took him when he was about 5. There were also frequent visits with his parents to the Jekyll & Hyde Club, a midtown Manhattan theme restaurant. As a teen, Stentiford starred in a home-movie version of the tale he created with pals from Commack High School. And one of his first auditions, after graduating from Hofstra, was for a regional production of the musical in New Jersey (he nabbed the role of Jekyll’s best friend). By that point, he was hooked, and hoped one day to play the lead.
The stars align
In 2014, he met Cuccioli, who Stentiford had seen on Broadway years earlier. Cuccioli, a Plandome native, became Stentiford’s mentor and acting coach, and prepped him for the audition.
“Of course I know the role pretty well, however I always encourage actors to bring their own personality to the table,” writes Cuccioli, in an email. “That's what's exciting about acting and why you can see a show multiple times with different actors and it's always different.”
So what makes Stentiford right for the role?
“Alan has a fabulous voice, he's a wonderful actor, but above all he has immense passion, which is crucial,” notes Cuccioli.
“He’s fearless,” Sanzel adds. “That’s something you look for with this part — someone who doesn’t look back, who isn’t afraid to go out on the edge.”
Having Cuccioli in his corner has been vital. The star has advised Stentiford on vocal warm-ups (he starts two hours before each performance), and physicality (making sure he speaks and moves differently as Jekyll and Hyde). They even covered practical matters, like hair.
As Jekyll, Stentiford keeps his hair in a neat ponytail, but when he transforms into Hyde, the hair is let loose.
“The director said the transformation was great … but it slowed down when I had to take my hair ties out,” Stentiford recalls. Cuccioli offered tips on how to subtly flick off the elastic bands while writhing on the stage. “I just toss them somewhere offstage,” says Stentiford. “By the end of the show there are billions of them all over the place.”
The storyline of the musical varies from the original book, featuring additional characters like Emma, Jekyll’s fiancee (played at Theatre Three by Tamralynn Dorsa) and Lucy (Tracylynn Conner), a showgirl who becomes entwined with Hyde. At times, the plot parallels Stentiford's personal family history. The show opens with Jekyll caring for his father, who is confined to a hospital.
“That resonates very much with me,” he says, thinking of his mother. “The idea of trying to save the health of a parent, and that feeling of a child being left all alone.”
Later in the show, Emma sings a touching ballad “Once Upon a Dream,” and he clings to her.
“She’s pleading with him to go back to a place they were before — back to a time of normalcy, and hope. It’s like a lullaby and it hits home for me,” Stentiford says.
To look at him, with his wide-eyed, youthful good looks and affable nature, one sees the Jekyll, but not the Hyde. And yet this isn’t Stentiford's first dark role. He played Dr. Frankenstein in an Off-Broadway “Frankenstein” musical, and a series of creepy characters (Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd) at Beetle House, a Tim Burton-themed restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village.
“In life, you get none of that — there’s no darkness in him as a human being,” says Sanzel. “He’s a team player, committed, a hard worker.”
So why does he keep getting cast as the bad guy? Stentiford isn’t sure. But he likes it.
“I’ve loved Disney villains since I was a kid. They’re more exciting," he says. "What would Snow White be without the Wicked Queen?”
Or Jekyll, without his Hyde?
“My friends joke, ‘Oh, Alan always wants to play the villain,’” says Stentiford. “But they’re the best parts to play.”
WHAT "Jekyll & Hyde — The Musical"
WHEN | WHERE Through Oct. 26, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson
INFO $20-$35; 631-928-9100, theatrethree.com
So many actors have put their stamp on the characters of Jekyll and Hyde on both stage and screen. Here are some standouts:
John Barrymore (1920) — The legendary actor starred in the silent film "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Fredric March (1932) — In this popular version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Hyde looks like a caveman. March won the Academy Award for best actor.
Spencer Tracy (1941) — He relied on minimal makeup when playing the homicidal Hyde. Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner co-starred as the women in his life.
Jerry Lewis (1963) — In “The Nutty Professor,” Lewis took a comic turn as a hopelessly nerdy professor who drinks a potion, transforming into suave, smooth-talking ladies’ man Buddy Love.
Eddie Murphy (1996) — This “Nutty Professor” remake offers Murphy as an obese academic with a potion that turns him into a hunky, conceited cad.
Robert Cuccioli (1997) — Star of the Broadway musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” and national tour, which generated a devoted cult following known as the Jekkies.