Friday, December 21, 2012

theatre review THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, Broadway, Dec. 1

The Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood might just be the show with the most fun currently running on Broadway.  With a top notch ensemble, including Broadway legend Chita Rivera, as well as impressive sets and costumes, Drood is simply smashing.

Created by singer/songwriter Rupert Holmes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood originally premiered in 1985 as one of the Public Theatre's free Summer series of plays in Central Park.  It then moved to Broadway that Winter and won the Tony Award for Best New Musical that season.  This is the first time the show has been revived on Broadway.

Drood is an ingenious show in that it takes the final, unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and turns it into a musical set within a musical that includes the audience voting on the ending.  In doing so it becomes not only the story of what exactly happened to young Edwin Drood but also the story of the actors playing the characters in the musical as well as the audience's involvement in voting on key decisions in the play's outcome.   If Dickens hadn't died before finishing the novel the musical wouldn't be as much fun as it is because the audience's involvement in the last 1/4 of the show, when they help shape the outcome, provides an amazing way for the audience to connect to it.

Jim Norton, Betsy Wolfe, Gregg Edelman, Stephanie J. Block,
Robert Creighton and Jessie Mueller
 The show is presented as if you are at a British Music Hall in the early 1900's. By doing so it gives the actors the opportunity to ham up their parts, coming out into the audience to get them excited, continual interaction from the stage manager as well as having the part of Drood played by a woman. This tradition is known as the "trouser role" as women at that time were never allowed to wear pants except if they were on stage playing a man.  This is something of an English tradition which can be most likely traced back to the time of Shakespeare when originally men played all the parts in his plays, including the women, due to women not being allowed to act. This turnabout is definitely an advantage for us in that it gives Stephanie J. Block the chance to shine not only as Drood but also as Alice Nutting, the actress playing Drood.

Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block
Not only is Block great in her parts, with an amazingly clear voice but the rest of the ensemble matches her as well not only in their vocals but their enthusiasm.   Jim Norton is the Chairman who serves as the narrator of the play that the troop of actors he oversees is presenting for us.  That play, of course, is "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and Norton perfectly gets across the part of the manager trying to keep his troop of overacting thespians in line.  This includes handling interruptions by the scene chewing cast, managing an actor who has little to do but prays for a bigger role and dealing with Nutting when she gets upset by a decision the cast makes about Edwin's fate. Norton manages all of those tasks and more in a charming yet effective way.

Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block and Will Chase
 Will Chase plays Drood's uncle John Jasper and excels in his portrayal of the sneaky, drug imbibing relative who is in love with Rosa Bud, Edwin's betrothed.  Chase is most likely better known for the role he played on the tv show Smash but his performance here is so unlike that character that you most likely won't even recognize him.  Rosa is played by Betsy Wolfe who sings like a bird and looks like an angel but who has some secrets of her own.

Chita Rivera is Princess Puffer, the madame of an opium den who has many secrets herself and connections to several of the people in Drood's life.  While Rivera's British accent comes and goes, she is having a heck of a time in the show, belts out her songs with the best of them and seeing this Broadway legend, who will turn 80 in a month, still having so much fun on the stage is simply infectious. 

Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller
Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller are brother and sister orphans from Ceylon who Reverend Crisparkle, played by Gregg Edelman, is helping to get acquainted with their new lives in England.  Karl and Mueller are hysterical in their portrayals with Mueller exceptionally impressive with her vocal skills, diction and accent.  Karl is no slouch either with this acting and singing abilities and the hilarious accent he and his "sister" are giving us.  While Edelman has less to do and his role isn't as "showy" as the rest, he still manages to give us a character we can identify with.  Robert Creighton is hilarious as the drunken character in the play within the play as well as completely proud of his son who has just joined the acting troop.

Andy Karl and his eyebrows!
The entire cast effectively manages the dual roles they are given.  Karl, Mueller and Wolfe's facial expressions alone are worth the price of admissions.  Actually just Karl's movement of his eyebrows is.  Karl is one of those performers who we've seen in numerous Broadway and Off Broadway shows but this is a breakout role for him and I'm so glad to see him relish the part so effectively.

Since pretty much every one of the cast members has a potential motive for killing Edwin Drood, and because Dickens didn't finish the novel before he passed away, it is up to the audience to vote not on only who Drood's killer is but also on which actors play other key parts in the show.  During this part of the show the main suspects ham it up and chew the scenery with panache.  Since there are multiple suspects and several things the audience votes on, there are over 1,000 combinations on the way the voting could go, so the last 1/4 of the show is never the same.  In fact, at a talk back with the cast that followed our performance we were told that one of the choices we voted on was the first time that this cast had performed that selection.  So the cast has to be prepared for every possible combination of the voting results.

Let the voting begin!
Holmes' score features not only lovely ballads with soaring melodies for the play within the play but also upbeat rousing comical numbers for the Music Hall Royale's troop to sing. Holmes not only wrote the music, lyrics and book of the show, but the orchestrations as well, which is something of a rarity.  This revival features some additional changes that Holmes made to the score and this cast just recorded a cast recording that is to feature many of the possible voting results as well as some music not heard on previous recordings.

Scott Ellis' direction of the show is simply wonderful.  He completely gets the fun and the drama that the show requires but has also found a way to have the joy that the actors are feeling wash over the footlights and out into the audience.  This is especially effective in his staging of the final song of the show, which comes after all of the humorous voting has ended, and is is such an uplifting one that sends the audience out of the theatre on an emotional high.

Warren Carlyle's choreography matches Ellis' direction in getting the fun and joy but also the beauty in the more serious moments of the show.  Creative elements are top notch and I expect many Tony nominations come next May for the show with Anna Louizos' set design and William Ivey Long's costumes not only all beautiful and colorful but also perfectly in touch with the character's, the period and the feeling of being back in the days of the British Music Hall.  Brian Nason's lighting design and Tony Meola's sound design are also effective in setting the mood of the piece and Paul Gemignani gives his usual clear and decisive handling of the musical direction of the orchestra.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one show not to miss this season.  It will make you laugh and possibly make you cry and leave you with a feeling that life is simply wonderful and that the magic of the theatre is alive and well on 54th street.  Drood, while originally a limited run, has just been extended to March 10th.

Official Show Site

Highlights from this production:

Interviews with the cast and creative team:

The original Broadway cast featuring George Rose, Betty Buckley, Cleo Laine, Howard McGillin and Patti Cohenour perform on the 1986 Tony Awards:

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