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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

"Thank you, thank you so very much! Good evening and welcome, a very warm welcome to all of you on this most thrilling of evenings here at The Music Hall Royale. Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight we have the privilege of presenting for your approval the premiere performance of. . . "— The Chairman
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Be advised that the Roundabout Theatre Company is currently playing host to a visiting troupe of rather boisterous and bawdy Victorian British music hall performers who have been miraculously transported (or is it teleported?) one hundred and seventeen years into the future for a special engagement of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But please take the time as you make your way into the Studio 54 auditorium to acquaint yourself with the portrait gallery of the cast members as they appear in their most famous roles. If some of them look suspiciously like performers who we have seen during our lifetime, we must assume that any resemblance is purely coincidental. It is no coincidence, however, and definitely by intention that their version of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel is being performed exactly as it was performed at London's Music Hall Royale in 1895.

By ill-advisedly dying before he completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens left his half-finished novel irreparably unresolved and untidy. The delightful musical adaptation by Rupert Holmes (book, music and lyrics) is now having its first Broadway revival since it opened in 1985. It is nice to report that this rambunctious show amusingly embraces, as did the original production, all of the novel's loose ends, looser middle and various ragged edges. This cleverly contrived smorgasbord of Victorian melodrama and English music hall remains as much an occasion for murderous merriment today as it did twenty seven years ago.

Don't think that this musical-within-a-musical version appeared unfinished when it first opened at the Shakespeare in the Park's Delacorte Theater and in its subsequent successful move to Broadway. Holmes, who was the first person to solely win Tonys for Best Book, Music and Lyrics for Drood, formulated an ending or endings for his English music-hall-styled show that looks quite at home these days within Studio 54, a theater whose preservation/restoration harks back to its glorious post-Victorian days as the Gallo Opera House.

The carefully crafted improvisatory-styled conceits that mark every production of Drood have once again been artfully integrated, this time by director Scott Ellis. Further uplifting what is essentially a hoary whodunit is a stylish new production enhanced with a series of evocative, winsomely painted settings designed by Anna Louizos. But the production's most breathtaking adornment is the array of gorgeous Victorian-era costumes designed by that genius of fanciful fabric(ation) William Ivey Long.

The success of this show rests, however, on the ability of the audience to be receptive and responsive when it comes time for them to pick "whodunit," as well as to pick who will be paired as lovers. The audience participation serves as the coup de theatre for a boisterous music hall troupe that is presenting to its audience (us) its own loose Drood. As cleverness can only go so far, as can the ingenious way that this musical involves the audience, this production is notably charged by its company's esprit de corps and in particular by fun-fueled finesse of the principal performers.

There are those who will undoubtedly choose to recall the pleasures of the original production and particularly the singularly irresistible award-winning performance of George Rose in the role of the "Chairman. But this aisle-sitter is ready to concede that there were more than enough moments during the performance I saw when another incomparable actor, Jim Norton, became the heir to a rigorous role that is essentially defined by how successfully he can get the audience into the right mood. Best know for his Tony award-winning performance in The Seafarer, Norton does a splendid job thickening the mystery for us by stringing us along with many a wry and/or cheeky innuendo and in a manner that is not only uniquely comical, but one that somehow makes the plot matter more than it does.

Of course, it is not the Dickensian plotting but the interpolated music hall elements that are really what matter and stand out the most. While one is easily disposed to respond favorably to the kitschy, bubbly music hall songs, such as the rollicking ensemble digression "Off to the Races," it won't hurt to be attentive to the musical complexity of the dramatic, plaintive and brooding arias, duets, quartets, etc., particularly the hauntingly melodic "Moonfall." All the singing is exceptional. By having the musicians, under the direction Paul Gemignani, in two side boxes, there is also an excellent balance of sound .

If Norton gets to cavort about with the utmost ebullience from self-congratulatory hamming back into the earnest melodramatics of the play-within-the-play, there is much to relish in the attention-grabbing performances by a formidable list of suspects. No matter that Stephanie J. Block is handsomely attired first as the young Drood in Act 1 and later in her drab garb as a mysterious stranger; her guileless pretensions in both cases are a cause for admiration.

How could we not succumb to the savvy wiles of Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who has learned how to rule whatever stage she finds herself on. As the notorious opium queen Princess Puffer, Rivera is quite a dominating force of theatricality, and kicks up the floor-boards with gusto and gives plenty of what it takes to put over her two big numbers — "The Wages of Sin" and "The Garden Path to Hell" — making sure each lives up to its provocative title. She also leads the entire company in a rousing and joyously climactic ensemble number "Don't Quit While You're Ahead."

All the cast members earns earn their bows by the way they empower the more playful, dastardly and wicked nature of their roles. Offering their fair share of farcical chills are Will Chase, as the drug-addicted, sex-obsessed John Jasper and Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl as the sinister Ceylonese siblings. Betsy Wolfe is, as she should be, both beautiful and beguiling as Rosa Bud, the object of her obsessive cousin Jasper's sexual fantasy. More comically straightforward are Peter Benson and Robert Creighton — Benson as Bazzard, an intruder whom nobody really knows but nevertheless, has a near show-stopper with "Never the Luck" and Creighton as a drunken keeper of the crypt.

Director Ellis, who is Roundabout's associate artistic director and most recently guided Harvey to its resounding success, keeps the show moving from one dramatically critical moment to the next. He does the same for each diverting musical digression, assisted by Warren Carlyle's spirited choreography. Brian Nason's glowing-to-gloomy lighting is a notable asset.

In the end, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is more mischievous than mysterious, but it offers, a couple of wonderfully undemanding hours of entertainment in the grand old tradition of the English music hall.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Book, Music & Lyrics by Rupert Holmes, based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel
Directed by Scott Ellis

Cast: Stephanie J. Block (Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting), Will Chase (John Jasper/Mr. Clive Paget), Gregg Edelman (The Reverent Mr. Crisparkle/Mr. Cedric Moncrieffe), Jim Norton (Chairman/Mr. William Cartwright), and Chita Rivera (The Princess Puffer/Miss Angela Prysock); with Andy Karl (Neville Landless/Mr. Victor Grinstead, Jessie Mueller (Helena Landless/Miss Janet Conover), Betsy Wolfe (Rosa Bud/Miss Deirdre Pergrine), Nicholas Barasch (Deputy/Master Nick Cricker), Peter Benson (Bazzard/ Mr. Phillip Bax), Robert Creighton (Durdles/Mr. Nick Cricker) also Alison Cimmet, Kyle Coffman, Nick Corley, Janine DiVita, Jennifer Foote, Justin Greer, Shannon Lewis, Spencer Plachy, Kiira Schmidt, Eric Sciotto, Jim Walton (The Citizens of Cloisterham).
Sets: Anna Louizos
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Lighting: Brian Nason
Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani
Choreography by Warren Carlyle.
Sound: Tony Meola
Hair and Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Make-Up Design: Angelina Avallone
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission
Roundabout at Studio 54 254 West 54th St. (212)719-1300
Tickets: $42.00 - $137.00
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00PM.
From 10/19/12; opening 11/13/12; closing 3/10/13.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/08/12
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • "THERE YOU ARE" / Chairman & Company
  • "TWO KINSMEN" / Drood & Jasper
  • "MOONFALL" /Rosa
  • "MOONFALL QUARTET" /Helena, Rosa, Wendy, Beatrice
  • "THE WAGES OF SIN" /Puffer, with Company
  • "JASPER'S VISION-SMOKE BALLET" "CEYLON - A BRITISH SUBECT"/Helena, Neville, Drood, Rosa, Crisparkle, with Company
  • "BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN" / & Chairman, with Company
  • "PERFECT STRANGERS" / Drood & Rosa
  • "NO GOOD CAN COME FROM BAD" / Neville, Rosa, Helena, Drood, Crisparkle, Jasper & Waiters, with Ensemble
  • "NEVER THE LUCK" /Bazzard, with Company
  • "OFF TO THE RACES" /Chairman, Durdles & Deputy, with Company
Act Two
  • "AN ENGLISH MUSIC HALL" / Chairman & Company
  • "SETTLING UP THE SCORE"/ Datchery & Puffer, with Company
  • "THE NAME OF LOVE/MOONFALL (REPRISE)" / Rosa & Jasper, with Company
  • "DON'T QUIT WHILE YOU'RE AHEAD" /Puffer & Company
  • "THE SOLUTION" /Company
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