Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Broadway: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The cast of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54 in New York is great fun.  The singing is exuberant, the choreography energetically acrobatic, the acting infectiously joyous.  The sets and costumes are absolutely magnificent and the general ambience of this play within a play (the premise being that the incomplete Dickens novel, here adapted for the stage, is being produced by a theatrical troupe at the Music Hall Royale in Victorian London) is cheerily successful.  Add to that the play’s interactive conceit in which it is left to the audience to determine who killed Edwin Drood, who the bearded detective Dick Datchery might really be, and which of the play’s many characters are destined for romance, and you’ve got the makings of an entertaining evening.

To be sure, the show’s music is more derivative than memorable and I doubt that you’ll find yourself humming any of its tunes as you leave the theatre.  And the audience participation conceit is a bit hokey after all.  But, all things considered, the show has more to commend than to disparage.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens final novel.  It was scheduled to be serialized in twelve parts in 1970-71 but, by the time of Dickens’ death in 1870, only half of the book had been written and so it was never completed.  That allowed Rupert Holmes (who wrote this musical’s book, music and lyrics) to come up with the concept of having the audience vote to determine who Drood’s murderer actually was.  In 1985, he created this show, initially known by the full name The Mystery of Edwin Drood  but re-titled simply Drood midway through its original run.  That original production, by the way, went on to win five Tony Awards in 1986 including Best Musical.

The plot line of Dickens’ novel already was relatively complex, even though he’d only gotten halfway through his book.  To greatly oversimplify, Edwin Drood (here played with great panache by Stephanie J. Block) is betrothed to the lovely Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe).  John Jasper (Will Chase), Drood’s sinister uncle and guardian and Rosa Bud’s music master, is also in love with Rosa Bud.  Neville Landless (Andy Karl), who arrives from Ceylon with his twin sister Helena (Jessie Mueller), is instantly smitten by Rosa Bud but he and Edwin take an immediate dislike to one another.  Jasper frequents an opium den run by Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera).  Edwin and Rosa Bud break off their engagement but remain friends.  The Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) apparently succeeds in bringing about a reconciliation between Edwin and Neville, who leave his dinner party together.

The next morning it is discovered that Edwin is missing and, while his body is never found (maybe it would have been or maybe he even would have turned up safe and sound if Dickens had only finished his book!), it is assumed that he has been murdered.   But by whom?  The pool of suspects would seem to include John Jasper, Neville Landless, Rosa Bud, and many others.

Some time after that, Princess Puffer appears in town to investigate the disappearance/murder.  But why?  So too does the bearded stranger Dick Datchery, who clearly is in disguise and may not be whom he seems to be.  Why again?  And it’s at about that point that the original Dickens text peters out…

What to do?  Well, in this rousing revival at Roundabout’s Studio 54, the solution is: Ask the audience!  And that’s just what the Chairman, our host for the evening at the Music Hall Royale (Jim Norton) does.  He asks the audience to vote on who they think the murderer is, and, while they’re at it, to vote on who might have been disguised as Dick Datchery: was it Rosa Bud?  Neville Landless?  Helena Landless?  The list goes on.

And then, as if that were not already enough, they’re asked to choose one male character and one female character to embark on a romance together.  I understand that alternate endings were written for every possible combination, no matter how unlikely, and I can only wonder whether in its next incarnation some years hence, the show will expand those permutations to include a variety of politically correct gay and lesbian combinations as well.  After all, it already has a woman playing the role of Edwin Drood (and perhaps another in the role of Dick Datchery). 

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