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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Guggenheim Entertainment
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Eddie's review of Fun Home

The Cast
Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment
When he died on June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens left the world with many novels and stories to be loved for generations to come; but he also left an unsolved mystery that intrigued scholars and amateur detectives. A novel he was writing, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," was left unfinished at the point of near-reveal of who was responsible for the disappearance and assumed murder of the title character. While a number of authors since have attempted to finish the story, it is the British-American composer Rupert Holmes who found the real answer when he decided to create a musical (book, music, lyrics) that allowed a possible, different solution to evolve at each performance with the audience deciding—among other things—did Edwin Drood actually die and, if so, who killed him among a stage full of possible suspects.

Guggenheim Entertainment is now staging at its 3 Below Theatres and Lounge a rip-roaring, rambunctious, and riotous The Mystery of Edwin Drood—Rupert Holmes' 1985 musical that garnered five Tony Awards out of eleven nominations, including Best Musical. As soon as the theatre's two aisles fill with a variety of jovial, oddball characters dressed in late-nineteenth century wear—stopping along the way to greet audience members as if old friends—it is clear that this is not going to be a typical musical outing. We soon realize that we are watching something that has aspects of a rowdy, English music hall in the 1890s, of a contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and of the yet-to-appear vaudeville shows of the United States. A master of ceremonies, called the Chairman, raps his gavel to begin the evening and proceeds to lead the cast of eleven in a rousing, heartily sung "There You Are" before he begins to introduce each member of this 1892, Music Hall Royale cast in London, England.

Mr. Holmes's musical is a story within a story. We meet each actor as a regular performer of this neighborhood musical hall, and we meet the character being played tonight by each actor. As individual characters of the mystery appear, the Chairman interrupts the story at hand and introduces with some juicy details the local actor he assumes we already know (since after all, we are playing the parts of the Music Hall regulars).

Benjamin Pither brings clarion vocals and an upbeat spirit to his role as Chairman William Cartwright, as he oversees the entire evening from his sideline chair, occasionally intervening to deliver a series of corny one-line jokes with a cast member. He also often joins in a song or two or explains to us—his good friends—what is about to happen next, often with a wink at a lady or two among us. At one point, the Chairman discovers that he must substitute for an actor that has not shown up that night, reluctantly becoming Cloisterham's most odd in every respect Mayor Sapsea, with Mr. Pither now speaking in the funniest and most nasal voice imaginable.

The role of the chairman was a tradition of English pantomimes and music halls in the years following Dickens' death, as was the use of the lead boy and of audience participation. The role of Edwin Drood is in the tradition of a young woman playing the lead character in male drag, something Hayley Lovgren does with much flair and fancy as she becomes Edwin himself. When Edwin arrives at the home of his uncle, John Jasper, both Ms. Lovgren and Stephen Guggenheim (as Jasper) give us a great preview of their individually fine voices as they sing "Two Kinsmen."

Drood brings along his childhood sweetheart and now fiancée, Rosa Bud, who also happens to be a voice student of Choirmaster Jasper. When Jasper gives her a song to sing that he has written especially for her, Rosa Bud (Theresa Swain) sings "In the moonfall I'll give myself to you" with sweet, lyrical beauty, even as her repulsed countenance makes evident the disgust she feels for this creepy, older man who wants her love. That the uncle lusts after the very girl to whom his nephew is betrothed is the first of many clues to come of who might want to murder the poor boy.

Jasper—who earlier sang more clues of his possible demise via Mr. Guggenheim's rich operatic voice in "A Man Could Go Quite Mad"—is next seen in a dingy opium den overseen by the Princess Puffer, one of the evening's best of quirky characterizations as played by a ruby-lipped Krista Wigle. In a cockney accent sung with guttural gusto and a voice that slips and slides up and down the scale as the words powerfully project, Puffer arouses the audience to help her sing about "The Wages of Sin." She also hears the now-drugged Jasper call out the name "Rosa Bud" as he is in the midst of "Jasper's Vision" (with the entire company enacting the "Opium Den Ballet" in a pantomime semi-hokum, semi-impressive). Thus another of mounting clues is dropped—some of which the Chairman comes out to have repeated in song or spoken voice, just in case we missed them.

Arriving also at Jasper's abode is an exotic set of twins from Ceylon, Neville and Helena Landless (played respectively by F. James Raasch and Amy Bouchard). During their mash-up opening number during which the entire company joins them, "Ceylon/A British Subject," we learn of Neville's "hot-tempered past" while also seeing his immediate, rather slimy attraction to Rosa Bud (something everyone else on the stage also notices). Not surprisingly, Neville and Drood immediately dislike each other; and more clues for later audience contemplation accumulate.

Along the way, we also meet the pious but not overly righteous Reverend Crisparkle (Jackson Davis), along with a very drunken giant of a stonemason, Durdles (Daniel Barrington Rubio), and his diminutive, female sidekick simply named Deputy (Lily Guggenheim). Each will have a chance both to chime in on what might or might not have happened the stormy Christmas Eve night that Edwin Drood left to go walking down by the river (and never to return) as well as to become possible suspects themselves.

The one character who will not be a suspect is Bazzard, whose role in the story ends just before intermission, at which time the Chairman tells Mr. Philip Box that it is time for him to skidaddle. That gives Jeremy Kreamer, who plays Bazzard, the chance first to sing a hilarious "Never the Luck"—a song that every theatrical understudy who waits on the sidelines can relate to:

"Tho' ever I plan
and ever I plot
With ever the pluck to try,
I wait for my star by fate to be struck -
But never the luck have I.

As the second act opens six months later, with there still being no found Drood (always pronounced by one and all—including us, the audience—as "Drooooood"), the time for to begin voting approaches. It is now up to us to determine which of the many versions Rupert Holmes has written will be performed this night by this anxiously awaiting cast. Confessions, both false and real, are sung with much passion and some contriteness, with false endings and last-minute surprises still to come. And being that this is a Music Hall ruled by a Chairman who wants to be sure that his audience goes home satisfied, a happy ending (or maybe even endings) is guaranteed.

Scott Evan Guggenheim directs with a big grin and a lot of imagination this unique bow to yesteryear's musical traditions along with its modern innovation (at least for 1985) of a theatrical audience being given the power of the script. Assorted trunks and chairs are the mainstay for the always-in-motion set design by Jerald R. Ends, along with backdrop projections by Derek Duarte (who also has designed the lighting)—projections that constantly remind us of the late, nineteenth-century era as well as adding some of their own, tongue-in-cheek humor along the way.

Much of the fun in each character's persona comes from the costumes designed by Sherrol Simard that range from the fanciest to the most humble of the class-divided society of 1892 England. Orchestra music to accompany the cast as well as often to play a part in the joke punch lines is not live, but instead provided via a recording. While perfectly timed throughout and never overbearing, there are times when the music backdrop clearly sounds recorded; and at those times, I for one wished a lone piano player with personality were sitting on the side as the Music Hall Royale's ivory master.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is not a small undertaking for any theatrical company, given its many possible twists, turns, and outcomes—both pre-planned and determined on-the-spot by the audience. 3Below Theatres and Lounge is transformed into a Music Hall Royale that is bursting with friendly enthusiasm, music both high and low in nature, mysterious intrigue, and ongoing hilarity. Being able to see this award-winning musical that is not that often done is a treat and one that should not be missed by those loving a few laughs that they get to help generate.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, through November 11, 2018, by Guggenheim Entertainment at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at

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