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February 9, 2013

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a Killer


Audience participation is not my thing.  So you might think that The Mystery of Edwin Drood would not be my kind of show. At least, that’s what I feared. 

For this musical, based on Charles Dickens’ final and unfinished novel, famously calls on each night’s audience to vote on how the story should end. The Roundabout  Theatre Company’s current revival ups the involvement by having cast members roam around before the show starts, chatting up people, pretending to flirt with some and even posing for photos with a few.  

I pretended to be very busy reading my Playbill so that none of them would interact with me. But, once the show got going, I had a pretty good time. Although not as good as most of the critics who have raved about this production, which is now playing at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 through March 10 (click here to read some of those reviews). 

The audience the night my husband K and I saw the show seemed to love it just as much. But the people who looked to be having the best time were those on stage, an A-level  collection of Broadway musical vets including Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, the fast-up-and-coming Jessie Mueller and the legendary Chita Rivera.

They play a troupe of 19th century music-hall actors (click here to read faux bios the real-life actors have made up for their fictional counterparts) who are performing Dickens’ story about a man named Edwin Drood and his uncle, a choirmaster with an opium habit, who are both in love with the same woman. 

Adding to the intrigue is yet another suitor, a hotheaded newcomer who has just arrived from Ceylon with his perhaps too devoted twin sister. When Drood suddenly disappears, all of them (plus the woman who runs the opium den and the too-good-to-be-true local parson) become suspects for his supposed murder. 

All of this allowed Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book, music and lyrics (and did the orchestrations too) to stuff in as many Victorian-era theatrical conventions as he could think of, including sing-alongs, bawdy music hall jokes and the lead boy tradition of having the young male protagonist played by an actress wearing boy's clothing.
 
The original 1985 production, directed by my old theater teacher Wilford Leach, starred Betty Buckley as Drood, Howard McGillin as the uncle, George Rose as the troupe’s master of ceremonies and Cleo Laine as the opium den madam. It started out as a summer offering at Central Park's Delacorte Theater but moved to Broadway just three months later, where it won five Tonys, including Best Musical, and ran for 608 performances.  
 
This is the show’s first Broadway revival and the current cast, nimbly directed by Scott Ellis, has its moments too, reveling in the chance to be as hammy as their 19th century counterparts might have been. 

Norton is superb as the unflappable emcee, who must keep his temperamental stars in line and the show moving along. Chase is having so much fun as the leading villain that he can barely contain himself (click here to read a joint interview with the two actors).  And then there’s the incomparable Rivera, who at 80 can still do a high kick.  
 
The weak spot for me is Block, who, ever since being replaced by Idina Menzel after the first reading of Wicked, always seems to be waiting in the wings for her big-star moment. Block’s got a great voice but she always comes off to me as the really good replacement who takes over nine months into a long run and she strikes me that way here too.  
 
But no matter.  The set and costumes are witty, the spirits high and there are some infectiously joyous numbers like the opener “There You Are” and the crowd-pleasing “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.”  This may not be the best show you'll see this year but it's a shoo-in for the most jolly.

And  so when it came time to vote on the ending, I put aside my usual persnicketiness and participated right along with everyone else.

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