Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is based on an unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, who passed away before revealing the ending of the plot. This musical version is a play within a play and follows a rowdy Victorian-era theatrical troupe as they present their rendering of this whodunit at the 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 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.
The book for Drood by Rupert Holmes is a brilliant concept and framework, but written in a manner that creates some problems as well. The use of a Victorian troupe of offbeat performers allows for lots of free-wheeling hijinks, 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. Some may also find that the two wacky styles become tedious without more substance to support them.
The other primary weakness is that Drood falters with its musical 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 aren't musically interesting. The remaining half of the score does feature a few praiseworthy numbers, including the plaintive "Moonfall" as well as "Perfect Strangers" and "Settling Up the Score," two melodic duets featuring pleasing harmonies. 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 NKU gives the musical a worthwhile production.
Ellie O'Hara provides sharp acting and a piercing voice as Edwin Drood, turning in the show's best performance. As Rosa Bud, Makenna Henehan displays a steady yet delicate singing voice to good effect and is aptly sympathetic in her portrayal of the ingenue. In the role of John Jasper, Field Oldham is fittingly manic and sinister, and he sings the role confidently. Je'Shaun Jackson is exuberant as the Chairman/Mayor, but could improve his diction somewhat. Jeremiah Savon Jackson is quite endearing as the timid Bazzard, and accurately captures the eagerness of the character. As the foreign siblings Neville and Helena, Jason Coffenberry and Ariana Catalano supply fierceness mixed with over-the-top flamboyance, which is what the roles require, and both sing capably.
Ezra Crist (Durdles) and Barrett Minks (Deputy) are fine comedians, though they could go even further with their antics. Tre Taylor is a sufficiently off-center Rev. Crisparkle. In the role of Princess Puffer, Kanai Nakata displays versatility and shows off strong vocals. The ensemble members also deserve praise for their high energy and consistent characterizations as the troupe performers.
The guest director for this production is Broadway star Jason Danieley (The Full Monty, Curtains). Mr. Danieley maintains a quick pace and comically fun tone. He makes great use of the performance space and has his cast well-prepared. The choreography by Maddie Jones is well suited and lively. Music Director Jamey Strawn leads a fine sounding ten-piece orchestra.
Toa Wang's interesting and handsome set design incorporates projections to good effect, and includes many small and large pieces in an impressive visual display. The costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain are attractive and period appropriate. The atmospheric lighting by Jo Sanburg had a number of execution issues at the performance attended.
There isn't too much to complain about in Northern Kentucky University's production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and with the piece rarely produced, this is a great opportunity to see a worthwhile production. The musical itself isn't great (but also isn't bad), and with the talented young performers, fine direction, and first-rate design, those wishing to catch something fresh should certainly give this production a go.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through November 21, 2021, at Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theater, 100 Nunn Dr, 260 Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights KY. For tickets and information, call 859-572-5464 or visit www.nku.edu/academics/sota/theatre.html.