Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
By: Joel Benjamin
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Andy Karl, Peter Benson, Betsy Wolfe, Will Chase, Jessie Mueller,
Robert Creighton, Chita Rivera and Gregg Edelman in a scene from
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is robust and energetically entertaining and has nothing on its agenda but pleasing the audience. Since the plot is practically non-existent—a series of confusing incidents based on Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished novel—it was up to bookwriter, composer and lyricist Rupert Holmes to come up with a “gimmick” to turn the novel into a living, breathing show piece. And, he succeeded brilliantly, tapping what appears to be an encyclopedic knowledge of both Dickens and the British Musical Hall tradition. His eye and ear for detail, as well as his ability to bring the Victorian era into our time is striking. He understands the jargon of the actors in the fictitious company presenting the Dickens story, with all the inherent winking double entendres and hoary old jokes. The use of authentic Dickensian phraseology also gives solidity to what might have been a weightless divertissement.

Holmes gives us a slightly moldy but feisty British acting troupe that decides to entertain us with its rendition of Dickens’ tale of dirty doings, beginning as the audience enters Studio 54 which has been turned into the Music Hall Royale by the witty set designer Anna Louizos whose proscenium-within-a-proscenium is a show in itself. Each Music Hall company member—dressed in William Ivey Long’s ingeniously beautiful period costumes—lays claim to a few rows which becomes important later when the audience is asked to vote on a crucial plot twist.

Each actor portrays two characters: a member of the acting troupe and the character he or she plays in the Drood play-within-a-play. Jim Norton is in complete command as the Chairman of the troupe and the character Mr. William Cartwright of Drood. He jokes, chats, reveals behind the scenes secrets and is a total joy to watch. Will Chase is the hiss-worthy villain, John Jasper and also Mr. James Throttle. Jasper is the leering uncle of Edwin Drood who is betrothed to the much younger Rosa Bud/Miss Deirdre Peregrine (Betsy Wolfe), the ingénue of both the novel and the acting troupe. The title character is played by the “principal boy” who, in the musical hall tradition, was always a young woman. In this case the incredibly vibrant Stephanie J. Block plays Miss Alice Nutting/Edwin Drood who disappears—murdered?—and sets the dizziness in motion.

Will Chase as John Jasper and Stephanie J. Block as Edwin Drood in a
scene from The Mystery of Edwin Drood
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Suspects abound. An exotic couple, Neville Landless and his sister, Helena, played by Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller, respectively, (in divinely silly burnt umber makeup), fresh off the boat from Ceylon (!) complicate things as does the inimitable Chita Rivera as the Princess Puffer in whose opium den John Jasper has spent time. She can’t quite find a consistent Cockney accent, but wherever she is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off of her, such is her charisma and command of her craft.

The rest of the cast spins their characters with precision and enthusiasm. They include well known stage veterans like Gregg Edelman who burns bright at the end of the show when his Reverend Mr. Crisparkle reveals that still waters do run deep.

The audience participation ending in which Drood’s fate, killer, etc., are decided is a hoot and, of course, is different every night. The game cast handles it all very well.

Warren Carlyle’s choreography keeps the cast spilling out all over the stage with its evocation of the Victorian period combined with modern energy and wit. Scott Ellis, the director, never lets the momentum stop, which can be exhausting on both the cast and audience, but, in this case is simply exhilarating.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (through March 10, 2013)
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and 8th Ave., in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or http://www.RoundaboutTheatre.org

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