Xander Chauncey says that, try as we might, it’s hard to hide our Hydes.
Chauncey — whose first name is pronounced “ZAN-der” and is short for Alexander — plays the title characters in “Jekyll and Hyde” at Elmsford’s Westchester Broadway Theatre, in a run that opens officially on Oct. 7 and will extend into February, with a break for a holiday show.
“If you get cut off in traffic, suddenly you’re filled with rage,” he says. “Hyde is really just a distillation of that, a purification of that darkness. His comes out in evil ways, but our primal nature isn’t exactly kind.”
Mr. Hyde is rough around the edges, animalistic.
“All of his impulses come out of pure instinct,” Chauncey says. “I’m sure if there were a scene of him at a dinner buffet, he would have awful table manners.”
Not exactly the kind of company you want in a dinner-theater setting.
If Hyde is the face of evil, and he is, Jekyll isn’t exactly angelic, the actor says.
“Rather than being the good one, Jekyll is the larger picture,” he says. “Hyde comes from within Jekyll. Jekyll is really capable of everything Hyde does, but what is acceptable in society keeps him from acting on it. Some dark part of Jekyll wants to take his revenge on his enemies.”
Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” this adaptation has music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics and book by Leslie Bricusse. It ran more than 1,500 performances on Broadway and was nominated for four Tony Awards, including a best-actor nomination for Robert Cuccioli, who directs this production.
At the audition, Chauncey sang the show’s anthem, “This Is the Moment,” for Cuccioli.
“To be singing Jekyll in front of Jekyll was pretty amazing,” he says. “I remember in the middle of singing ‘This Is the Moment’ suddenly becoming aware of an entirely different meaning of the song. I felt a life come from within me, of how perfect that moment was for me.”
This was his moment and, apparently, Cuccioli liked what he heard.
What is like to work for the man who originated the role and who has directed it at WBT in 2001?
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Chauncey says. “I was ready for him to say ‘Do A, B and C, exactly like this.’ But his direction is so collaborative and he’s such an actor’s director. I don’t think he gave me one piece of direction that didn’t begin with ‘How do you feel about this?’ or ‘What do you think Jekyll is feeling at this point?’
“He really incorporated all of my ideas into his direction. I felt very much part of the process, very hands-on. And because of that I feel connected to everything I’m doing.”
Working on the WBT stage — which is surrounded on three sides by the audience — is more natural, he says, than acting on a traditional proscenium stage, where actors tend to play out to the audience.
“Here, you can face upstage and still be seen by two-thirds of the audience,” Chauncey says. “It’s a lot more like film work, in that way.”
On Broadway, Cuccioli made the switch between Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde with a simple flip of his hair. Chauncey will do the same: When he is Jekyll, his hair is kempt; as Hyde, his hair — and it is not a wig — will be down and disheveled.
But Chauncey is quick to note that “It’s important that this is not a musical about your hair, that the moments of switching are justified. It helps in clarifying for the audience when it’s Jekyll and when it’s Hyde, aside from the voice and the physicality of it.”
A self-described “Army brat” who last called Florida home, the 32-year-old Chauncey says the divided run — the musical will take a December hiatus to give way to “A Sleepy Hollow Christmas Carol” — might be just what the doctor ordered.
“It’ll be nice to have a challenging role to play, but also get to see my family at the holidays,” he says.?“And I’m sure I’ll be looking forward to a break. This is a physically and vocally demanding role.”
Jekyll, he concedes, is likely to have more gifts under the tree than Hyde is.
“Hyde will have a huge lump of coal,” he says. “And he’ll probably off Santa. Sorry kids.”