BWW Review: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at Swift Creek Mill Theatre Shines through the Confusion
There's an excitement about "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Swift Creek Mill Theatre's holiday offering. It's not a Christmas show, really-just sort of Christmas-adjacent-but it is an infrequently produced favorite from 1985. The pop singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes-you know him from "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)"-based this musical on Charles Dickens' unfinished last work, also titled "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
Holmes used an elaborate framing device for the story that is an entertaining part of the production, setting it in an English music hall with a traditional stock company of actors. So there's a terrific scenic design by director Tom Width-an elaborately decorated stage complete with painted backdrops and a beautiful roll-up curtain (Katherine Taylor Thompson is the scenic artist). The company manager (played by Richard Travis with rollicking energy) acts as master of ceremonies, introducing the Dickensian characters as well as the "English" actors who play them.
And the plot, like the novel, is unfinished, so eventually the source material comes to an end, and the audience is invited to vote on the musical's ending-is there a victim, and if so, whodunit? And by the way, who should get together to finish the tale with a little romance?
While Holmes contributes a lovely collection of songs, including the haunting "Moonfall," the book is confusing-it's a lot of fun, but it's hard to keep track of what's going on. Edwin Drood is a young man who's long been betrothed to Rosa Bud; Edwin's uncle Jasper is Rosa's music teacher, and Jasper has developed an unhealthy attachment to the girl. The mysterious Princess Puffer operates an opium den Jasper patronizes; the exotic Neville and Helena Landless, brother and sister, come to study with the Reverend Crisparkle, a local cleric. There's a coarse character named Durdles who works in the graveyard, and there are numerous other players muddling the plot.
Nevertheless, Width has a great feel for this material (he directed the show at Dogwood Dell in 1994). There's tremendous affection and verve in his direction, and the large cast is accomplished and committed. Standouts, in addition to Travis, are Rachel Marrs as Drood-she is an incredibly reliable performer-and Michael Gray in a very creepy turn as Jasper, employing his amazing voice to great effect. Kenneth Putnam also does a wonderful job as the lovable underdog Bazzard. The big cast does fine work, especially Jacqueline O'Connor as Princess Puffer, Donna Marie Miller as Helena, Ian Page as Neville and PJ Llewellyn as Reverend Crisparkle. Paige Reisenfeld conveys Rosa's naïveté and fear but struggles somewhat with the vocal demands of the role.
Width's skill is at its peak in the opium dream scene "Jasper's Vision," with the magical appearance of a pair of succubi. Maura Lynch Cravey's costumes are delightfully brash, and Joe Doran outdoes himself in the fun, colorful lighting. Gabrielle Maes's music direction is wonderful, and there's an excellent 9-piece orchestra offstage. And Alissa Pagnotti succeeds in choreographing 18 actors on the diminutive Mill stage.
It would be better if you could make heads or tails of the plot, but with music, color, action and comedy, "Edwin Drood" has plenty of fun for your holiday enjoyment.
Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Colonial Heights
Through December 28
Tickets $40 (seniors, military & students $35; dining $18
Info: swiftcreekmill.com or (804) 748-5203
Photo credit: Robyn O'Neill