No Mystery Here: "Drood" Is a Raucous Burlesque

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes; directed by Amanda Dehnert; musical direction by Tim Robertson; choreographed by Sharon Jenkins; set designed by Eugene Lee; costumes designed by William Lane; lights designed by Brian J. Lilienthal; sound designed by Peter Sasha Hurowitz

Featuring: Jessie Austrian, Stephen Berenson, Timothy Crowe, William Damkoehler, Mauro Hantman, Phyllis Kay, Brian McEleney, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Racheal Warren, and Michael Hance

Performances: Now through October 9

Box Office: 401-351-4242 or

True mystery buffs who enjoy matching wits with the likes of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes may be in for a bit of a letdown with the solve-it-yourself musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" now in its final week at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI. Fans of bawdy, brash, and boisterous music hall melodrama, however, will delight in this frenetic play within a play that asks the audience to vote for the most likely killer of the young hero Edwin "Ned" Drood.

Is the dastardly villain the obvious choice – the nefarious, opium smoking, lecherous Uncle John "Jack" Jasper, the seemingly pious choirmaster who covets his nephew Ned's fianceé, the lovely innocent with the angelic voice, Miss Rosa Bud? Or is it the gravedigger Durdles, a sure beneficiary of any untimely death? Perhaps the mysteriously accented brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless have hidden motives – or perhaps the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle is acting on behalf of a higher power. Lurking in the shadows, too, is The Princess Puffer, the drug dealing brothel owner who has dirt on practically everyone in town. And don't forget Rosa herself. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of sexually repressed young women?

Trinity Rep's acting artistic director Amanda Dehnert pulls out all the stops in staging this multiple Tony Award winning Rupert Holmes musical suggested by Charles Dickens' unfinished novel. Bawdyhouse boys and girls roam the aisles tantalizing both male and female patrons. Audience "plants" ignite the not-so-spontaneous cheers and hisses that greet each hero and villain. Stagehands and pit musicians become part of the action as they wield period lighting equipment and create special effects that garner their own raucous laughter.

All of this directorial brio results in clever bits and strong performances from the entire acting and supporting ensemble, but there is a manic quality to this production that assaults the senses and eventually wears thin. Touching ballads like Rosa's "Moonfall" and Drood and Rosa's "Perfect Strangers" get almost the same belting treatment as Puffer's comically repentant "The Wages of Sin" and Jasper and the Chairman's tongue twisting riddle, "Both Sides of the Coin." "Jasper's Vision," also know as "A Man Could Go Quite Mad," seems more cocaine than opium induced with its shouted lyrics and over-the-top histrionics. Ultimately, "Drood" wears out its actors – and the audience – by the time the voting for the killer takes place. Its non-stop fever pitch and uniformly strident musical numbers are just plain overpowering.

A very talented and appealing cast does make this "Drood" worth the effort, however. Jessie Austrian as Rosa Bud and Rachael Warren as the male impersonator Miss Alice Nutting – who plays the part of Edwin Drood within the mystery – have beautiful voices and make a tender, even heartbreaking, couple whose forced engagement since childhood has robbed them of the opportunity to experience true love. Michael Hance shows convincing menace and inner torment as the uncle John Jasper, while Anne Scurria as The Princess Puffer is wonderfully wicked and unabashedly naughty. Timothy Crowe and Stephen Thorne do a delightful vaudeville turn as father and son acting team Nick and Nick C ricker who play the show-within-the-show's gravedigger and deputy. Stephen Berenson as the under appreciated actor Mr. Phillip Bax/Bazzard completely wins over the audience with his plaintive appeal for a larger part and a brighter spotlight; and the devilishly whimsical emcee Brian McEleney does yeoman's work as the ever-present Mr. William Cartwright, Your Chairman, who must also substitute for the absent actor James Hitchens as the Mayor.

Sets, lights, costumes and properties are perfectly rendered to create a seedy British music hall that transforms seamlessly into gritty Dickensian street scenes and back again. As the actors playing actors playing suspects fall in and out of character and move the unfinished mystery – as well as their own backstage dramas – along, the music hall becomes a two-tiered choirmaster's manor, a cathedral city, an opium den, burial crypts, and a train station. We even get the obligatory dark and stormy night effects – complete with onstage rain, thunder and lightning – that punctuate the climactic Christmas night murder.

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" may not engage the intellectual, problem-solving side of the cerebral cortex, but it does stimulate the baser senses. I just wish it hadn't stimulated them quite so much. A little breathing room now and then would have made this Trinity Rep production even more enjoyable.

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From This Author Jan Nargi