BWW Review: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at Foothill Music Theatre Provides a Rollicking Good Time
Sometimes it is enough just to be entertained, ya know? I don't care how socio-politically engaged you are, I think everyone needs at least an occasional break from all the angst and mishegas out there, and that's exactly what Foothill Music Theatre provides with its antic musical comedy "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." With book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes (yes, he of "The Pina Colada Song" infamy. Apologies for implanting that deathless ear worm in your head for the rest of the day!), "Drood" is truly sui generis. Based on an unfinished Charles Dickens novel of the same name, the show reimagines it as performed by a veteran troupe of British Music Hall performers circa 1895. When they reach the point in the story where Dickens left off, the audience is asked to vote on how it ends - who the murderer and secret detective are and - since this is a musical comedy - the pair they'd most like to see end up as lovers. The cast then plays out the concluding scenes and songs accordingly. Apparently, there are close to a mind-bogglingly thousand possible combinations, which just adds to the fun and unpredictability of the whole endeavor. Holmes clearly has a lot of affection for both Dickens and English Music Hall entertainment, as he provides a fairly witty book and lyrics and an often tuneful score that honors both.As the audience enters the theater, we are greeted by performers of the Music Hall Royale milling about, helping us to our seats, inquiring after our health, etc. Once the show proper kicks off, the plot centers around John Jasper, choir master, opium addict and uncle to the titular Edwin Drood, who is betrothed to Rosa Bud, with whom Jasper is also in love. (Got that?). A mysterious pair of immigrants arrive from Celyon, one of whom also becomes besotted with Rosa. A cast of characters gradually emerges who could each conceivably wish to see Drood dead so that when he does disappear it becomes a mystery replete with likely suspects. Although potentially serious issues such as drug addiction, immigration and class are all part of the mix, they are used mainly to provide background color before the show redoubles its focus on hijinks and humor. One of the show's chief pleasures is Holmes' spritely score, which includes such highlights as a rapid fire tongue-twister of a patter song ("Both Sides of the Coin"), a traditional music hall style number for its house diva ("The Wages of Sin"), and a particularly lovely and ingenious duet for two sopranos of differing genders ("Perfect Strangers") that imagines how much stronger their love would be if they had just met instead of having been promised to each other since childhood. True to the style of British Music Hall, there is much breaking of the fourth wall, guided by the sure hand of director Milissa Carey. Everyone maintains a consistent level of good spirits and helps move the proceedings along without ever being too intrusive or seeming like one individual is trying to make themselves the star of the show. This is ultimately an ensemble piece, with roughly a dozen prominently featured roles and scads of smaller ensemble parts. It provides an extra challenge for the actors as each is required to play both a specific music hall performer and the character that actor plays in the telling of the Dickens mystery. While I would have like to have seen a bit more distinctiveness and darkness here and there, overall the cast succeeds winningly.
Chloë Angst in the trouser role of the titular Drood possesses a reedy belt that is eerily similar to Betty Buckley who originated the role on Broadway, and is quite fun as the surprisingly haughty actress Alice Nutting who plays Drood. Brenna Sammon as dewy Rosa Bud shows off a gleaming soprano and it's a real pleasure to hear a voice like hers in such an intimate space. John Mannion as the Chairman, a sort of master of ceremonies, welcomes us into the world of British Music Hall at the top of the show and oversees the voting process at the end with just the right mix of good humor and efficiency. It's the kind of role that could all too easily be larded with extraneous schtick, and Mr. Mannion never oversteps his bounds here. He also pulls off the aforementioned tongue twister of a patter song with aplomb in a delightful duet with Benjamin Ball as John Jasper. Rachelle Abbey and David Murphy as the putative immigrants from Ceylon work together beautifully as a team, and skillfully walk a line that keeps us guessing just how much of their story is true.
The true standout of the cast is Heather Orth as the almost deliriously footlight-addicted music hall diva Angela Prysock and the inscrutable opium den proprietress Princess Puffer. Both roles fit her like a glove, and her performance contains a wealth of character details that underscore the duality inherent in the show. Just watch how Prysock's eyes light up every time she finds her key light, or how carefully Puffer counts the coins handed to her by an opium den patron to make sure she hasn't been shortchanged. Orth possesses a large, flexible voice and knows how to use it to great effect, but it's these kinds of small character touches that really give her performance that extra sparkle. What a joy it is to see such a seasoned pro take on this kind of delectably multi-faceted role and run with it!
As I left the theater, I have to say I found myself reluctant to leave the world of "Drood" behind. It was a bit of a rough transition back to real life.
(Photos by David Allen)
Foothill Music Theatre's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" runs through March 15th at the Lohman Theater, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA. Running time is approximately 2:25 including one intermission. For tickets and further information, visit https://foothill.edu/theatre/productions/Drood.html or call (650) 949-7360.