A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
By ill-advisedly dying before he completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens left his half-finished novel irreparably unresolved and untidy. The delightful musical adaptation by Rupert Holmes (book, music and lyrics) is now having its first Broadway revival since it opened in 1985. It is nice to report that this rambunctious show amusingly embraces, as did the original production, all of the novel's loose ends, looser middle and various ragged edges. This cleverly contrived smorgasbord of Victorian melodrama and English music hall remains as much an occasion for murderous merriment today as it did twenty seven years ago.
Don't think that this musical-within-a-musical version appeared unfinished when it first opened at the Shakespeare in the Park's Delacorte Theater and in its subsequent successful move to Broadway. Holmes, who was the first person to solely win Tonys for Best Book, Music and Lyrics for Drood, formulated an ending or endings for his English music-hall-styled show that looks quite at home these days within Studio 54, a theater whose preservation/restoration harks back to its glorious post-Victorian days as the Gallo Opera House.
The carefully crafted improvisatory-styled conceits that mark every production of Drood have once again been artfully integrated, this time by director Scott Ellis. Further uplifting what is essentially a hoary whodunit is a stylish new production enhanced with a series of evocative, winsomely painted settings designed by Anna Louizos. But the production's most breathtaking adornment is the array of gorgeous Victorian-era costumes designed by that genius of fanciful fabric(ation) William Ivey Long.
The success of this show rests, however, on the ability of the audience to be receptive and responsive when it comes time for them to pick "whodunit," as well as to pick who will be paired as lovers. The audience participation serves as the coup de theatre for a boisterous music hall troupe that is presenting to its audience (us) its own loose Drood. As cleverness can only go so far, as can the ingenious way that this musical involves the audience, this production is notably charged by its company's esprit de corps and in particular by fun-fueled finesse of the principal performers.
There are those who will undoubtedly choose to recall the pleasures of the original production and particularly the singularly irresistible award-winning performance of George Rose in the role of the "Chairman. But this aisle-sitter is ready to concede that there were more than enough moments during the performance I saw when another incomparable actor, Jim Norton, became the heir to a rigorous role that is essentially defined by how successfully he can get the audience into the right mood. Best know for his Tony award-winning performance in The Seafarer, Norton does a splendid job thickening the mystery for us by stringing us along with many a wry and/or cheeky innuendo and in a manner that is not only uniquely comical, but one that somehow makes the plot matter more than it does.
Of course, it is not the Dickensian plotting but the interpolated music hall elements that are really what matter and stand out the most. While one is easily disposed to respond favorably to the kitschy, bubbly music hall songs, such as the rollicking ensemble digression "Off to the Races," it won't hurt to be attentive to the musical complexity of the dramatic, plaintive and brooding arias, duets, quartets, etc., particularly the hauntingly melodic "Moonfall." All the singing is exceptional. By having the musicians, under the direction Paul Gemignani, in two side boxes, there is also an excellent balance of sound .
If Norton gets to cavort about with the utmost ebullience from self-congratulatory hamming back into the earnest melodramatics of the play-within-the-play, there is much to relish in the attention-grabbing performances by a formidable list of suspects. No matter that Stephanie J. Block is handsomely attired first as the young Drood in Act 1 and later in her drab garb as a mysterious stranger; her guileless pretensions in both cases are a cause for admiration.
How could we not succumb to the savvy wiles of Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who has learned how to rule whatever stage she finds herself on. As the notorious opium queen Princess Puffer, Rivera is quite a dominating force of theatricality, and kicks up the floor-boards with gusto and gives plenty of what it takes to put over her two big numbers — "The Wages of Sin" and "The Garden Path to Hell" — making sure each lives up to its provocative title. She also leads the entire company in a rousing and joyously climactic ensemble number "Don't Quit While You're Ahead."
All the cast members earns earn their bows by the way they empower the more playful, dastardly and wicked nature of their roles. Offering their fair share of farcical chills are Will Chase, as the drug-addicted, sex-obsessed John Jasper and Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl as the sinister Ceylonese siblings. Betsy Wolfe is, as she should be, both beautiful and beguiling as Rosa Bud, the object of her obsessive cousin Jasper's sexual fantasy. More comically straightforward are Peter Benson and Robert Creighton — Benson as Bazzard, an intruder whom nobody really knows but nevertheless, has a near show-stopper with "Never the Luck" and Creighton as a drunken keeper of the crypt.
Director Ellis, who is Roundabout's associate artistic director and most recently guided Harvey to its resounding success, keeps the show moving from one dramatically critical moment to the next. He does the same for each diverting musical digression, assisted by Warren Carlyle's spirited choreography. Brian Nason's glowing-to-gloomy lighting is a notable asset.
In the end, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is more mischievous than mysterious, but it offers, a couple of wonderfully undemanding hours of entertainment in the grand old tradition of the English music hall.
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