Steampunk ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ musical kicks off fall at Aurora Fox

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AURORA | Top hats, brass gears and slews of shadowy personas.

For the uninitiated, those are some of the basic tenants of steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction with aesthetics based in steam-powered, Industrial Revolution-era technologies. It’s gloomy and leathery and riddled with time period-bending anachronisms. A quick Google search of the quirky term yields panes of people dressed in shiny, antiquated garb that falls somewhere in between “Gangs of New York” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

The thematic subdivision first coined in the late 1980s is a definitive doorway to the odd. But it’s one that has established itself as an effective storytelling tool in recent decades through its ability to bridge the widening narrative gaps between modern audiences and greying personages.

Esoteric? Oh yeah. Effective in filling theater seats? Hopefully.

The team at the Aurora Fox Arts Center is aiming to exploit the offbeat style’s unique, time-erasing ability in the coming weeks by using steampunk as the backdrop for the theater’s first production of the 2015-16 season, “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.”

“I think the steampunk aesthetic not only serves to heighten the dramatic element of the show, but I think it also provides the audience a really unique way in,” said Jeffrey Parker, who will be making his Colorado theater debut in the lead role of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “It’s an aesthetic that they can immediately grab onto and it allows them to relate to horror in a way that’s sometimes difficult for audiences.”

Parker, a California native and assistant professor of theater at Metro State University of Denver, said that the formidable role is one that he has been “obsessed with” for nearly 20 years, but that the demanding nature of the dual persona has intimidated him.

For the uninitiated, those are some of the basic tenants of steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction with aesthetics based in steam-powered, Industrial Revolution-era technologies. It’s gloomy and leathery and riddled with time period-bending anachronisms. A quick Google search of the quirky term yields panes of people dressed in shiny, antiquated garb that falls somewhere in between “Gangs of New York” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

His anxiety regarding the role was quelled, however, after meeting and speaking with director El Armstrong and music director Martha Yordy during the audition process.

“El and Martha had such a clear vision for the show, it was almost like they had read my private journal of everything that I’d hoped a good production would be,” Parker said. “In terms of avoiding some of the pitfalls that appeared in the national tour, but bringing back some of those elements that really made it pop back in the ’95 version.”

The two-faced tale has been told in myriad ways onstage, page and screen since it was first penned by British novelist Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886, including several Broadway runs and national tours of the musical version by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden. With a book by Leslie Bricusse, the first rendition of the musical was performed in Houston in 1990.

Armstrong said that The Fox’s version is an amalgamation of several of the different onstage incarnations, and that he has remained consistently cognizant of staying true to the story — something he said has gone overlooked in larger productions.

“A lot of times the show becomes a star vehicle, and it’s sort of like you have the star and everybody else is just there to get from big number to big number for the lead,” he said. “But I wanted to go back a little bit and try to focus on the actual story of Jekyll and Hyde.”

But despite an emphasis on the well-known plot line, The Fox production doesn’t lack in the spectacular. Armstrong said that wherever he was able to push the boundaries toward the extreme, he did so — and with gusto.

“It’s really sexy and really violent and really violently sexy,” he said. “There will be places where I think we’ll push the edges of the envelope for the audience and that’s OK. If they’re thinking as they’re leaving the theater, I’m certainly not averse to that.”

“I think the steampunk aesthetic not only serves to heighten the dramatic element of the show, but I think it also provides the audience a really unique way in,” said Jeffrey Parker, who will be making his Colorado theater debut in the lead role of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “It’s an aesthetic that they can immediately grab onto and it allows them to relate to horror in a way that’s sometimes difficult for audiences.”

Brandon Case, The Fox’s technical director, said that he believes the theater’s typical audience has come to expect outlandish takes on classic yarns.

“Our audience knows us and doesn’t expect us to do it the way Broadway would have done it,” he said. “They know we’re going to do things outside the box.”

Despite the possibility of toeing some touchy lines, Parker said that The Fox’s “Jekyll” is still a family-friendly performance — steampunk gadgets and all.

“I’m still inviting my mother to it,” he said. “It’s not ‘Oh Calcutta’ and we’re not doing anything that will cause the censors to come in or anything.”