BWW Review: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD THRILLS AND DELIGHTS NOW THRU NOV. 11 at 3Below
From the minds of two Englishmen of grand repute comes an intriguing tale entitled, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." The original was written, of course, by Charles Dickens, who brought his characters to life in 1870, whereas the second debuted on Broadway in 1985 from the piano and pen of Rupert Holmes, born in Cheshire, England but American bred, the product of his English rose of a mother and his US Army, bandleader father.
Sadly, the untimely death of Dickens ensured that the fate of Edwin Drood would remain a mystery. And though many an ambitious writer would try their hand at devising an ending, it wasn't until Holmes (Rupert, not Sherlock) dared to set "Drood" to song - and perhaps most astonishingly, comedy -- that the story finally reached a satisfying conclusion...or did it? And therein lies the ongoing mystery which Holmes cleverly worked into his musical - he left the fate of Edwin in the hands of each night's audience, thereby ensuring a different ending each time the show was performed. Genius!
Currently playing at San Jose's 3Below, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is at once a dramatic tour-de-force and a Vaudevillian comedic masterpiece that will have you laughing (not to mention cheering and hissing) and leave you thoroughly entertained. Playing now through November 11, it's a grand, must-see show.
Chief among the reasons for this is the exceedingly talented cast and the show-within-a-show concept that allows us to partake of Mr. Dickens' dark intrigue while also being handsomely entertained by Mr. Holmes' lively score and sidesplitting book. (Holmes won the 1985 Tony Awards for Book, Music and Lyrics; the show won 5 Tony Awards that year.)
The Chairman, or Master of Ceremonies, is played by the vibrantly infectious Benjamin Pither who directs the evening's entertainment with admirable aplomb and witty repartee. He welcomes us to Cloisterham's Music Hall Royale (circa 1895), introducing us to the rest of his acting troupe, who will be presenting this evening's performance of "Drood." As the rousing opening number "There You Are" begins, troupe members can be found walking up and down the aisles of the theater talking with the audience in a most engaging way, making it clear that they're quite happy to have us there. This focus on the audience creates an immediate bond that ensures participation from beginning to end. It's just so much fun! From the stage, the Chairman shouts out to his principles who introduce themselves before making their way onto the stage with him.
The plot immediately thickens as we meet acting troupe member Mr. Clive Paget who will be playing the deviously sublime John Jasper - both of whom are played by 3Below's illustrious Stephen Guggenheim. John Jasper is Cloisterham's seemingly upright choirmaster, but he's got a secret life as well as a secret obsession with his nephew Edwin's fiancé Rosa Bud, who also happens to be his music pupil. His tempestuous inner life is revealed to the audience in the song, "A Man Could Go Quite Mad," a wonderful vehicle for Guggenheim's world-renowned vocal talents.
In short order we meet the rest of the troupe, starting with Miss Alice Nutting who plays the part of Edwin Drood. Hayley Lovgren is marvelous in this dual role, switching back and forth between the selfish diva and the winsome Edwin with ease. Theresa Swain is a gem as troupe actress Miss Deirdre Peregrine/ Edwin's betrothed, the ingénue, Rosa Bud.
At Rosa's music lesson, which also happens to be her birthday, Jasper surprises her with a song he's written expressly for her. As she begins to sing it, she realizes that he's put words into her mouth that he's always longed to hear from her but knows he never will.
"And in the moonfall/I'll give myself to you./I'll bathe in moonfall and dress myself in dew." Rosa's voice trembles and her eyes widen with fear as she feels his lust for her with every word. Easy enough for the audience to decide immediately that Jasper will end up being Edwin's murderer but that would make things too easy, would it not?
The Chairman, who keeps the jokes and sidebars coming, reminds the audience to keep a lookout for clues as to the killer's identity amongst the cast of quirky characters. They come in and out of scenes that are skillfully directed by Scott Evan Guggenheim, who makes the most of the small stage. Perhaps due to the small stage, Jerald R. Enos's set design was simple and left much to the imagination of the audience, but such is the magic of theatre. Still, when Jasper steals away to Princess Puffer's dark London opium den, it isn't quite as wicked as one would expect. And, because the stage lacked wings, the lighting seemed overly bright for the den. All that is tuppence compared to Princess Puffer herself who astounds with the song "The Wages of Sin." Sung with a rich cockney accent, Krista Wigle owns the scene.
Not to be outdone is the brilliant performance of "Both Sides of the Coin" a fast-paced, tongue-twister of a patter song in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan. Sung by the Chairman and Jasper it is a marvel of perfection. While the humor is high, there are also wistful moments that Holmes eloquently captures, as when Edwin and Rosa both realize that they aren't meant for each other in the song "Perfect Strangers." It's a beautiful acknowledgment that though they love each other, it wasn't meant to be. "If we were perfect strangers/I'd find my way with ease/I'd know the path before me, the forest/From the trees." They keep this a secret, adding most interestingly to the mystery.
Toward the end of Act II, we came to the point in the story where Charles Dicken's met his own demise. The troupe, mid-song, abruptly stops singing and the Chairman let us know that it was time for the audience to determine who killed Edwin Drood. And since every story needs a romance, the audience also chose the lovers, plus one other role. It's a raucous good time especially when the two lovers are chosen. The voting was a lark, but well before that point it was clear that the audience was completely besotted by The Mystery of Edwin Drood, swept up as they were by the rich score, dramatic intrigue and engaging humor. It's a wonderful night of theatre. Go see it while you still can.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
Book by Rupert Holmes
Music, Lyrics and Orchestration by Rupert Holmes
Now thru Nov. 11
3Below Theatres & Lounge
Photo courtesy of Guggenheim Entertainment