There is a mystery to be solved in Cincinnati. How can a show have won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book and receive a fully professional production with a wonderful cast, strong direction, and superb design elements, but still turn out to be a disappointment? This conundrum is manifested in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, currently staged by the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) musical theater program.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is based on the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, who died before revealing the ending of the plot. This musical version is a play within a play and shows a rowdy Victorian-era theatrical troupe as they present their rendering of this whodunit at their Music Hall Royale. The audience is introduced to each "performer" as they enter the inner play's narrative and take on the role of one of Dickens' characters. The actual story of Drood deals with the psychotic choirmaster John Jasper, who is in love with his student Rosa Bud. Rosa, however, is engaged to marry her childhood friend Edwin Drood, fulfilling an arrangement made by these two orphans' late parents. Soon, additional characters also enter the story, all with motives and grievances of their own. So when young Edwin turns up missing on Christmas morning, who is to blame? Has he been murdered? If so, who did it? And who is the stranger who, along with the seedy Princess Puffer, seeks to solve the case? Since Charles Dickens died before answering any of these questions, the troupe turns to its audience to provide their opinions, and then play out the end of the mystery based on those choices.
Rupert Holmes' book for Drood is the combination of a brilliant concept and framework, but written in a manner that creates significant problems. The use of a Victorian troupe of offbeat performers allows for lots of free-wheeling hi-jinks, including bad puns, frequent farcical interruptions of the action, and outlandish audience interaction. The inner play itself is presented in a highly melodramatic and intentionally overacted manner. While both of these contrasting styles are funny and somewhat entertaining, neither borders on realism. As a result, the audience never has any real connection or empathy for the characters of either the troupe's performers or those within Dickens' novel. The two wacky styles also quickly become tedious without more substance to support them.
The other primary reason that Drood falters as a musical is its score, also by Rupert Holmes. Half of the songs are rhythmically repetitive patter songs. These music hall ditties fit the tone of the show, but they are musically uninteresting. The remaining half of the score does feature a few pleasant numbers, including the plaintive "Moonfall" as well as "Perfect Strangers" and "Settling Up The Score," two melodic duets featuring nice harmonies. Even this music, however, is surprisingly unmemorable and isn't emotionally thrilling in any way. Holmes' lyrics are mostly serviceable, but in most cases, the songs fail to advance the plot.
The fact that the show garnered five Tony Awards in 1986 is more indicative of how weak a season it was on Broadway, rather than the quality of the piece. This is a shame, as CCM gives the musical a worthwhile production without any real faults and with much to admire.
CCM's program consistently produces some of the most talented and well-trained collegians in the nation. For Drood, more than the usual numbers are featured due to the double casting of six leading roles, and performances of both casts were viewed for this review. As Rosa Bud, Ashley Brown displays her usual powerful, controlled, and beautiful singing voice to great effect, while Kristine Reese sings capably and is a bit more sympathetic in her portrayal of the ingenue. In the role of John Jasper, Geoff Packard is more fittingly manic and sinister, while Michael Lowe supplies superb timing in his delivery, and both sing the role confidently. Doug Barton and Ben Magnuson share the role of Chairman/Mayor. Both handle the large amount of dialogue and quick patter songs extremely well, but Barton's buffoonish Mayor is a bit funnier. Daniel Percefull is more endearing than Daniel McNie as the timid Bazzard, but both capture the appropriate eagerness of the character. As the foreign siblings Neville and Helena, opening night performers Kyle McDaniel and Lindsay Juneau bring a more flamboyant and cartoonish approach, while Adam Wagner and Kelsey McKelfresh convey more realistic anger, and both choices work sufficiently.
Gabriel Ford (Durdles) and Jonathan Parks-Ramage (Deputy) are worthy comedians, and Michael Parrish Dudell scores well as the stately yet off-center Rev. Crisparkle. The ensemble members deserve praise as well for their high energy and consistent characterizations as the troupe performers.
The two stars of the show, however, are Gina Restani and Betsy Wolfe. Ms. Restani sings strongly, possesses a wonderful stage presence, and supplies sharp acting as both Edwin Drood and Dick Datchery. In the role of Princess Puffer, Ms. Wolfe is colorfully raunchy, vocally amazing, and both hilarious and touching. These two seniors, along with their classmates, are sure to be heard from soon after graduating as they show the world their fine talents and training.
Director Aubrey Berg wisely maintains a quick pace and comically fun tone. There are many small and subtle directorial choices that really enhance the production, and Berg's staging and flow are effective as well. The choreography by Greg Hellems is well suited and lively. Roger Grodsky and Bryan Perri share Musical Director duties and each lead the top-notch nineteen-piece orchestra with flair.
Paul Shortt's interesting and handsome set design captures both the settings of the inner play and the performing space of the troupe. Wooden scaffolding, ropes, and a recessed proscenium arch surround the main performance area where set pieces and scrims create the world of Dickens' novel. The costumes and wigs by Mark D. Sorensen and make-up by Kelly Yurko are skillfully detailed and period appropriate. The atmospheric lighting by Kenneth E. Helvig is also a plus.
In the end, there isn't much of anything to complain about regarding CCM's actual production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Despite the talented young performers, fine direction, and first-rate design usually associated with CCM being again on display here, the show itself just isn't that good and definitely doesn't live up to the expectations suggested by its many awards. It succeeds moderately as a form of entertainment by engaging the audience in participating in the outcome. However, it is much less successful as a musical theater piece when viewed with a critical eye and ear. The musical continues at CCM through March 7, 2004.