BWW Review: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD Misses a Lot of Opportunities But Still Highly Entertaining
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (or, as it is sometimes called, the much shorter, "Drood") is a 1985 musical based on Charles Dickens unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Written entirely by Rupert Holmes, it was the first Broadway musical with multiple endings determined by the audience. Holmes received Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score. The production won five Tony Awards out of eleven nominations, including Best Musical. The musical is derived from both Dickens' final unfinished novel and British pantomime and music hall traditions that reached the height of their popularity in the years following Dickens' death. Produced originally by Austin Playhouse in 2005, it was nominated for six B. Iden Payne awards including the winner of Best Director for Musical Theatre (Don Toner). Jill Blackwood, Rick Roemer, and Jacqui Cross reprise their roles from that 2005 production.
The chief conceit in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD is metatheatrical because the characters of the play are played by actors of the fictitious Music Hall Royale within the production. In the Austin Playhouse production, the cast mingle among the audience handing out playbills for the Music Hall Royale production. There are dual roles within the show (actors playing characters) that gets even more delightfully convoluted in the second act, but to go into too much detail would spoil the fun...and this musical can indeed be great fun when properly produced.
Holmes' play-within-a-play centers on Edwin Drood being murdered. The problem is, Dickens died before he finished the novel, so we don't know by whom. The audience gets invited to choose who the murderer is which results in a different ending with each performance. Drawing on British pantomime, Dickens' novel, as well as Victorian-style music hall performance, Holmes drew the central premises of the show. From the Dickens work, he took the plot and most of the featured characters. From music hall traditions, he created the lead character of "The Chairman", who serves as both a Master of Ceremonies and instigator of the action on stage. From pantomime he retained the concept of the "Lead Boy" (always portrayed by a young female in male drag) and the most ground-breaking aspect of Drood, audience participation.
Act One begins as the members of the Music Hall Royale circulate among the audience, introducing themselves to the audience. The Chairman (Huck Huckaby) starts off the show's opening number then introduces John Jasper (Rick Roemer), the villainous choirmaster who greets his young nephew Edwin Drood (Jill Blackwood) and they express their strong friendship. Drood is engaged to the fair Miss Rosa Bud (Claire Grasso), who is Jasper's music pupil and the object of his obsession. Rosa's suspicions are confirmed when at her next lesson, he asks her to sing an innuendo-heavy love song he has written. The kindly Reverend Crisparkle (Scott Shipman) and two emigrants from Ceylon, Helena (Maria Latiolais)and Neville Landless (Morris Jude Martinez), arrive. Neville is immediately attracted to Rosa, which makes him a rival to both Edwin and Jasper. The chairman then brings the audience to London and the sinister opium den of the Princess Puffer (Jacqui Cross). We discover that one of Puffer's regular clients is none other than Jasper himself.
The Chairman then is called in to play another character who is missing, but it turns out that the scenes of his character and the scenes of Mayor Sapsea coincide resulting in major confusion. The last of the major characters are then introduced: the drunken Durdles (Samuel Knowlton), and his assistant Deputy (Ben Gibson). In the graveyard, they tell us that Edwin and Rosa, who have been promised to each other since they were children so they cannot tell if they truly love each other, have called off their engagement. On Christmas Eve Jasper has arranged a dinner for the Landless twins, Crisparkle, Rosa and Drood. When the party disbands the guests depart into a violent storm. In a break in the action, the actor playing Bazzard (Brian Coughlin) laments the fact that he never seems to be able to get a major part in a show.
While the show is still highly entertaining, due to the cleverness of Holmes' script and the talented cast, this Don Toner directed production mostly feels like missed opportunities. There is a distinct style and feel to British music hall that only a few of the performers fully embrace. There's an exaggeration to this style of acting that is part of the fun. While Diana Huckaby's costumes are a period delight, the effect is constantly shattered by the fact that the onstage orchestra is dressed in blacks. Since the action is in front of them, the audience is constantly pulled out of the illusion of attending a music hall performance. The choreography, by Meghan Bowman, is unsophisticated and lacking any of the snap and precision that is offered by music halls. Mike Toner's set design seems unfinished, with the exception of some lovely drop painting by scenic artist Theada Bellenger. The musical direction and the orchestra, both under the direction of Lyn Koenning, is top notch. Don Day's lighting design helps establish mood quite effectively.
This is clearly a talented cast, with some standout performances. Rick Roemer is appropriately slimy as John Jasper and Jill Blackwood is a delight in a clever gender bending performance. Morris Jude Martinez, as Neville Landless, does a great job with the music hall acting style. Scott Shipman is funny as Reverend Crisparkle and Jacqui Cross is a joy to watch as opium den mother Princess Puffer. Huck Huckaby is marvelous as the Chairman, masterfully serving as ringmaster to the proceedings. His Mayor Sapsea is a comic gem of a performance as well. Owen Ziegler was good as Mr. James Throttle and Brian Coughlin gives a great turn as underemployed actor Bazzard.
While the end product is uneven and feels like it could be so much more, it is still an enjoyable evening of musical theatre and worth your time and money.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD by Rupert Holmes
Running Time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours, including intermission.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, produced by Austin Playhouse (6001 Airport Boulevard, Austin, TX, 78752) at ACC Highland.
Thursdays-Sundays, November 24 - December 15, 2018. Thursdays - Sundays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m.
Tickets $38-$40 for general admission, $35-$37 for seniors, $19-$20 for students (plus service fee). Tickets: austinplayhouse.com or 512-476-0084.