Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 13, 2012
The Mystery of Edwin Drood Book, music, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Brian Nason. Sound design by Tony Meola. Orchestrations by Rupert Holmes. Dance arrangements by Sam Davis. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, and Chita Rivera, with Andy Karl, Jessie Mueller, Betsy Wolfe, Nicholas Barasch, Peter Benson, Robert Creighton, Alison Cimmet, Kyle Coffman, Nick Corley, Janine DiVita, Jenifer Foote, Justin Greer, Shannon Lewis, Spencer Plachy, Kiira Schmidt, Eric Sciotto, Jim Walton.
One might not expect any mere musical this side of 1776 to attain such a lofty goal, but Rupert Holmes's 1985 offering is managing it surprisingly well at Studio 54 these days. This is not, by the way, to say it's a timeless work — merely that it's the right work at the right time, with the right director (Scott Ellis) and the right cast (and how) involved.
After all, this is a show that's acknowledged (acclaimed is not the correct word) not for the strength of its book, its score, or its lyrics, but rather its gimmick, which doubles as a unique solution to one of the most perplexing issues in (relatively) recent literary history. Because Charles Dickens died halfway through writing his novel of the same name, and thus never revealed the killer (if, indeed, there even was to be one) of the title hero, Holmes opens this question — and a couple of others — up to the audience, with lines, scenes, songs, and most importantly jokes in the second half utterly dependent on their answer.
Was the murderer Drood's raving uncle, John Jasper (Will Chase)? His betrothed, Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe)? Neville Landless (Andy Karl) or his sister Helena (Jessie Mueller), two shadowy strangers from Ceylon? Perhaps Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), owner of the opium den in which Jasper unlocks his creativity and drowns his sorrows? What about Reverend Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman), who was in love with Rosa Bud's mother? Or maybe the drunken undertaker Durdles (Robert Creighton) or the aspiring playwright Bazard (Peter Benson), whom Dickens engaged for naught but a single confusing scene?
Yes, Holmes leaves that, as well as the identities of a bushy-bearded inspector named Dick Datchery and a pair of trysting survivors, entirely up to shows of hands and applause-inspired decibels, guaranteeing — in a way few shows, especially these days, can generally manage — that each performance will be different. Yet the best news is that even if that's not enough to encourage you to pony up piles of dollars for multiple tickets, the rest of the evening is so good that chances are you'd want to do it anyway.
Those looking to find flaws in The Mystery of Edwin Drood need look no further than this. Holmes's shenanigans extend further to presenting the story as the bill at London's Music Hall Royale in 1895, an anything-for-a-laugh venue managed by the twinkling Chairman (Jim Norton). The dark, psychosexual undertones of the novel are considerably downplayed, if not eliminated altogether, and the resulting bright and bawdy twist on the classic "veddy British" musical comedy formula will not please literature-loving Anglophiles.
But everyone else will be hard-pressed to have a bad time, what with the cavalcade of humor, compositions (orchestrated by Holmes himself and energetically conducted by Paul Gemignani) that chill your spine one moment and set your toes tapping the next (I defy you to expel "Off to the Races" or "Don't Quit While You're Ahead" from your mind), and a prevailing to commitment to classy classlessness that sends up Victorian delicacy with such affection even the most sensitive among you won't be bothered by it. And it helps tremendously that set designer Anna Louizos and costume designer William Ivey Long have created sumptuous, colorful plots that kindle low-budget whimsy without ever making you feel like you're watching the active pinching of pennies (as is the case at the current revival of Annie).
Ellis's ideal comic pacing and sweet-slick staging are tremendous, but the company is more than good enough to trump it. Norton's an easygoing riot as the Chairman; Rivera, if slightly taxed by the songs, plows through the plot's more perplexing points with go-for-broke aplomb; Will Chase has absolutely never sounded better than he does here, and his blending of self-aggrandizement with sheepish melodrama is adroitly matched; Wolfe sings splendidly; and Karl and Mueller are an impeccable twosome, embracing and yet sending up ancient ethnic stereotypes with suave skill.
Serious problems are nonexistent, but a few things are thinner than they should be. Though Stephanie J. Block is outstanding in the trousers role of Drood in the first act and as Datchery in the second, she overplays and underachieves when tasked with playing the offending actress who doesn't get her way at each and every juncture. Warren Carlyle's choreography is efficient, but rarely inventive or noteworthy. And Brian Nason's too-eager lights are the only element that spoil the sense of traveling through time and space and landing smack-dab in another performance tradition.
All this, however, is nitpicking. In all the ways that count, this Mystery of Edwin Drood could scarcely be better, and it offers a lot more fun than anyone following the American electoral process of late had any reason to expect. If you've been disillusioned, and become convinced that your vote doesn't count, there's no more refreshing salve than this to be currently found on the New York stage. Whether you consider yourself a Rosa-crat, Crisparkle-tarian, Re-Puffer-lican, or anything else, the only party that matters is the rollicking good one this show provides.