I first heard about The Mystery of Edwin Drood a few years ago when a friend of mine asked that I read the script and offer my opinion on whether he should produce the musical. I remember telling him, “This is hilarious and everything, but those endings are a pain!” He decided against producing it, unfortunately, but I’ve been curious about the challenging little musical ever since. Cue my excitement when I heard that Parkland Theatre would be producing this diverting and silly romp through a Dickensian murder mystery.
The inherent difficulty — and greatest selling point — in Drood is in its “solve-it-yourself” plot structure. The musical is a show-within-a-show: Before the curtain rises, we are introduced to a company of performers at “London’s Music Hall Royale,” circa 1895, who will be presenting Charles Dickens’ unfinished 1870 serial novel of the same name. The Chairman William Cartwright (a delightful Grant Morenz) acts as our emcee for the evening, and explains that, “Mr. Charles Dickens was full halfway through the creation of The Greatest Mystery Novel Of Our Time, when he committed the one ungenerous deed of his noble career: He died, leaving behind not the slightest hint as to the outcome he had intended for his bizarre and uncompleted puzzle: The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.” The clever way around this problem is that the audience will ultimately vote for the various outcomes of the story.
Rupert Holmes (who wrote the musical’s book, music, and lyrics) was concerned about transforming into a musical what he referred to as Dickens’ “bleak” tale; the way around this was to avoid the seriousness of the plot by having the performers break character and offer commentary constantly. In fact, most of the musical focuses on the Music Hall performers’ antics, with the Dickens plot played with a wink and nod toward the audience. The good news is that the show has such a high energy and element of fun that the audience doesn’t really miss the mystery, not to mention that most Dickens scholars agree that, had he finished Drood, it probably wouldn’t have rated very highly compared to his other works. The story that is inspired by Dickens concerns the opium-addicted John Jasper (a powerfully-voiced Michael Steen), who covets his music student, the ingénue Rosa Bud (the equally strong Marah Sotelo), who just so happens to be engaged to Jasper’s nephew, the puffed-up Edwin Drood (Malia Andrus), who mysteriously disappears on Christmas Eve. To allow for the various outcomes, Holmes has constructed motives for many of the show’s characters and planted several potential red herrings.
Director Dallas Street has assembled a comically adept and vocally strong cast of hams, who fully embrace the vaudevillian nature of the musical. Morenz’s Chairman easily steals the show, especially when he is “forced” to step into the role of Mayor Sapsea. Morenz feeds off of the audience nicely, delivering many of the show’s wisecracks, and the audience gleefully groans along with him. Also wonderful is Steen as Jasper, the potentially villainous music teacher and drug addict, whose leading man baritone is quite possibly the strongest voice in the show. Nic Morse and Celine Broussard as the transplanted-from-Ceylon Landless Twins are hilarious and purposefully over-the-top, playing colonial versions of the exoticized East. Julia Megan Sullivan was easily one of the favorites on opening night; her Angela Prysock is the clichéd “grand dame” who milks her performance of Princess Puffer for all it’s worth. The previously mentioned Sotelo as Rosa Bud sings beautifully, and shines in the gorgeous soprano ballad, “Moonfall.” Finally, in keeping with English pantomime tradition, the theoretically deceased Drood is portrayed by famous male impersonator Alice Nutting — the aforementioned Andrus — who plays both the diva actress and well-bred Drood nicely.
Where Drood really shines is in the wondrously humorous, rollicking Act Two, in which the audience becomes a part of the narrative. The audience votes on a few different aspects of the ending, the most notable being whom the murderer is — for that night, anyway. Performers enter into the audience and engage with the patrons, calling for their votes, as the would-be-murderers campaign and try to outdo one another. The over 400 possible permutations of the musical’s ending is challenge enough for any cast and director, but it is good fun or the audience, who often votes for the unlikeliest of outcomes. The mystery isn’t taken seriously, but that’s fine. The audience just wants to have as fun a time as the cast is having onstage.
This is a talented cast who sings the score with a lot of humor and skill; the only hindrance to my full enjoyment of the songs is that the lyrics were quite tricky to comprehend, especially in the patter numbers. Part of this is due to the sound mix being a bit off, which hopefully, will be addressed following the opening performance. The orchestra, conducted by Music Director Aaron Kaplan, sounds amazing on the musical numbers, and provides many musical “stings” throughout the show to add humor. The score is primarily operetta-inspired, and I must confess, is mostly forgettable. There are, however, a few memorable musical numbers, including the sweet “Perfect Strangers,” sung by Andrus and Sotelo, and Morenz and Steen shine in the tricky patter-song, “Both Sides of the Coin.”
Director Dallas Street has command over the playing space, and the moments staged on the apron are especially delightful, bringing the performers closer to the audience. Street has a great design team as well. Bernard Wolff’s scenic design marries the nineteenth-century music hall aesthetic with the fictional Dickensian town of Cloisterham, England. Costume designer Gregory Duckett has a field day with dapper waistcoats and bustles, and lighting designer Darren McCroom pulls it all together.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood proved to be an entertaining and amusing night at the theatre, and the opening night audience seemed to enjoy themselves. Drood will appeal to those who enjoy being a part of the show. With the majority of the potential endings never to be seen during this run, you could attend every performance and enjoy a different outcome each time. Audiences should go expecting to have fun with the nudge-nudge, wink-wink nature of the musical. Drood won’t have you contemplating any of life’s hardships, but it certainly will make you forget them for a while.
Upcoming performances of The Mystery of Edwin Drood are Thursday–Saturday, May 2–4, at 7:30 p.m., and matinees on Saturday, May 4, at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, at 3:00 p.m. For more information, check out their Facebook event page.
photos by Monica Inglot