The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Drood is not just a cleverly constructed musical comedy, and not just a holiday confection, although it is both of those. But more than that, it is one of the smartest satires and deconstructions of American musical theatre. It is a musical about musicals, and oddly enough, one of the few fully naturalistic musicals, because the very act of singing is motivated. Composer/lyricist/bookwriter/orchestrator Rupert Holmes offers a comic goldmine as a framing device; we, the audience, are at the Music Hall Royale in London, and the music hall's regular cast of British rowdies are about to present us with their adaptation of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
The framing device allows this musical to freely admit to all the artifice, posturing and shoehorning that traditional musical comedy generally asks us to politely ignore. Older musical comedies frequently gave us a leading actor inexplicably strolling down-center in the middle of a scene in order to belt out the title song, but here the same practice is funny and wry because here, the framing device justifies it and simultaneously admits the idiocy of it. Likewise, the periodic shoehorning of irrelevant numbers into a musical comedy plot is taken to an extreme, as the whole cast of Drood stops the action to step out of the scene and perform the troupe's signature number, "Off to the Races." We accept all this even though we might not still accept the same conventions in a 1920s musical comedy. And that's funny, too.
The score offers one thrilling surprise after another, from the rowdy opener, "There You Are" - significantly placing the audience at the center of the show, rather than the actors - as well as the chillingly beautiful melancholy of "Moonfall," the comic mania of "A Man Could Go Quite Mad" (one of the musical theatre's great character songs), the charmingly shy "Never the Luck," the manic patter number "Both Sides of the Coin," and too many other gems to mention. Holmes, who has also composed many hit pop songs, knows how to repeatedly surprise us without losing us. His songs are both sophisticated and accessible, both ironic and deeply emotional.
But why not present the tale in a more straightforward manner? Partly because the gloomy, melodramatic Dickensian tone would be out of place in a musical - it's not as grand and epic a tale as Les Miz, and yet not as ambiguous and ironic as a Sondheim show. But the more important reason is that the central gimmick of Holmes' version is that the audience itself fleshes out the plot elements that Dickens left undone when he died. In order for the audience to vote on the necessary questions of plot, the show needs a textual justification for the actors to go out into the audience and record the vote. The framing device of the music hall accomplishes this with great humor, great energy and a neverending source of cheap gags to boot.
The cast at the Rep is outstanding and clearly having an absolute blast on stage. Most impressive is Michael Halling as John Jasper, the sexually tortured addict and choirmaster. Halling, even more than the rest of the excellent cast, captures the over-the-top style of the interior story as well as the ego-driven chaos of the framing story, and all with a sweet, silky baritone voice and not a small amount of bad-boy sex appeal. John Sloman as The Chairman, the show's narrator and emcee, gives the kind of utterly joyful performance that is all too rare in the professional theatre. Even faced with a (false) fire alarm in the middle of act one on opening night, Sloman's friendly/naughty charm held the audience in thrall. Theatre students should make a pilgrimage to see Sloman, to understand how important joy is to live theatre.
The direction by Bussert and choreography by Janet Watson are consistently clever, surprisingly ballsy and always right on the money. The production boasts a unity and confidence of style that this material demands, from the terribly funny, crumbling set to the delightful costumes and lighting, to the small but well-oiled band. It's rare to see a theatre audience this involved, this rambunctious and this utterly delighted. This is truly a masterpiece of a production.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through December 31. For performance and ticket information, call (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Cast: Becca Ayers, Pamela Myers, John Sloman, Kelly Sullivan, Michael Halling, Anthony Santelmo Jr, Dominic Roberts, Ric Ryder, Fabio Polanco, Melissa Lone, Rob Donohoe, Ben Nordstrom, Jenn Goodson, and Alicia Irving