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Sound Advice Reviews

The Return of  ... Edwin Drood


(2-CD SET) DRG Records

Context is everything. Have some patience and drink it all in, and don't judge by casual first listen. The brand new revival cast album of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is fully understood and appreciated if one knows who's doing what to whom and why. Case in point: if you don't know the show, you may be taken aback by what sounds like a perfunctory performance by Betsy Wolfe (Rosa Bud)'s in the first stilted, stiff, bland rendition of "Moonfall" if you know it from sensuous, sinuous, elegant renditions by Renee Fleming, Judy Collins, Rebecca Spencer, Barbra Streisand or others. Perspective changes when you learn (or remember) that Rosa Bud is indeed supposed to be awkwardly, reluctantly sight-singing a song from sheet music just presented to her—and that the subject matter makes this young girl, pursued by the gift-giver, squirmingly embarrassed by its imagery. So, the actress is in character (but don't worry; she shows off some more glowing golden tones elsewhere, with more nuance).

Likewise, the shifting personalities and attitudes would seem puzzling if you don't know when those people we hear singing are playing the characters in Charles Dickens' novel and when they are playing fictional British music hall performers portraying those fictional characters. Likewise, you need to know that the titular Drood is taken on by a female from the troupe because that was done for some male "juvenile" characters back in the day. That's Stephanie J. Block doing a likeably lively, buoyant job on the disc. This allows for some unusual female vocal presences in combinations.

So, familiarity with the numerous characters and their relationships in the complex plot helps enormously, and a quite detailed synopsis is provided, taking us from event to event, song to song. This, like the book itself and the music and lyrics (and orchestrations, too) comes courtesy of careful craftsman Rupert Holmes. Careful listening is required to catch the torrents of his lyrics delivered often quickly and with various accents (lyrics are not provided in the packaging, unfortunately). Attitudes are strong and there's the self-aware brashness of the music hall style that make for much rollicking rambunctiousness in big group numbers which open each act and specialty pieces.

It's a joy to have the distinctive-voiced, personality-plus pro Chita Rivera strutting through a Broadway show, here as the opium den mother, Princess Puffer, bellowing and gleefully winking through "The Wages of Sin" and "The Garden Path to Hell," with her trademark laugh and sass. And she and Stephanie J. Block makes a fine combo, the older bourbon-voiced chortling blending nicely with Block's straight-ahead, lighter, smoother sound on "Settling Up the Score." The glee is infectious, and Block's final piece, "The Writing on the Wall," is rewardingly celebratory and robust. For me, it's her best stage or cast album performance. Will Chase and Jim Norton forcefully and broadly cavort and cackle, putting original stamps on their roles and team for a delicious super-fleet romp through "Both Sides of the Coin." Peter Benson leads with charm on the spiffy lament (I know it sounds like an oxymoron) "Never the Luck." And it's great to hear zesty bits from Robert Creighton (recently in Anything Goes and whose solo album last year was a joyful gem), and I love his blithe cockney-accented energy. There's more wild fun with Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller as quirky siblings from "Ceylon," though, like most cast members, they don't get to show much range or depth in these broad frolics. The ever-sturdy Gregg Edelman, at least on disc, seems a bit lost in the big shuffle of the large cast, and I wish Jim Walton had more to do.

The sprawling never-completed novel has its colorful personalities and types, but it was Dickens's misfortune—and our frustration—that he inconveniently died before finishing it and left no notes about his intent for tying up the many loose ends which include a whodunit. To provide an ending, the show back in the 1980s, and again now, rather famously lets each performance's audience decide who will confess to a crime, who is in disguise, and who will end up as a couple.

It's quite a different thing than the earlier cast album. And, I should say, if you do know the earlier production by a recording, how much of the score you know depends in what format you were exposed to: the original vinyl record, cassette, first CD issue, and CD reissue don't have all the exact same tracks. This time, we get more of the song possibilities that vary on stage from day to day, depending on who is chosen by the audience to deliver songs for the aforementioned twists. This brings us to the reason why we have this as a 2-CD set. There are two alternates for the "Out on a Limerick" moment (Peter Benson as Bazzard and then Jessie Mueller as Helena), some mixing and matching for the reprise of "Perfect Strangers" and eight—count 'em, eight—potential "Confession" numbers (expect reprises of characters' big songs within those, and these back-to-back-to-back tracks range in length from about a minute to over three minutes). It's a pleasure to report that each has its own charms and splash and attitude and musical personality. However, heard in one sitting with all the alternates (as we must remember is never, ever the intention for a live performance), it can become exhausting and feel somewhat harsh. Still, as a juicy appendix, the many alternate ending songs are great fun to hear in a row, or whenever one wishes.

With the many numbers with bawdy, busy, brisk orchestrations and arrangements, and some surprising tempo choices, it's a lot to take in with little respite for gentle, pretty moments. All pretty much presentational style, it starts to feel like a series of similar entertainment "attacks" despite the variety of voices and personalities. We're always so aware it's a play within a play, so there isn't much chance to relate emotionally and suspend disbelief, to identify with characters. Still, on its own unusual terms, it's a splashy holiday of a listen with some strong, broad-stroked vocal outings and Drood on double disc is often diverting and satisfying. Many of Rupert Holmes's melodies are so infectious and delightful that you may find them happily stuck in your head and grinning is quite likely, too. Sherlock Holmes may be the first name in mystery doings, but this Holmes has a touch that still tickles.

- Rob Lester

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