The Mystery of Edwin Drood

This musical, based on Charles’ Dickens final, unfinished novel, enjoyed a run of over 600 performances in 1986-7 but has only popped up here and there intermittently these past 25 years.  Leave it to the Roundabout, ever vigilant, to scoop it up from limbo. I recently flayed the good folks there for what I found to be a misconceived  Cyrano, but I’m happy to be able to exchange brickbats for bouquets for this immediate follow up project, now playing at Studio 54. 

Director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle have joined with music director Paul Gemignani to deliver a production that hits exactly the right bells on this triple-threat show (book, music and lyrics) by Rupert Holmes, which is set in London’s Music Hall Royale in 1895.

The gay nineties, when gay meant jolly, whizbang, mindless and low comic. They’ve come up with a set design by Anna Louizos and costumes by William Ivey Long that look as though no expense was spared to let us know  before anything happens that this is going to be a romp, to pack up our troubles, and smile, smile, smile.

The cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It doesn’t take long for the fun to start; from the moment the implike and delightful Jim Norton (The Seafarer, The Weir, Finian’s Rainbow) takes over as Chairman to lead a lively chorus in “There You Are,” we are home free. A charming melody, a zippy lyric, a stageful of trained voices emerging from vividly and colorfully clad Music Hall types gives us a rousing sendoff.

Little by little we come to know a dozen characters, most of whom will become suspect after the title character is sent to his reward. One is a low clown, two are Ceylonese siblings who’ve clearly seen Rudolf Valentino in “The Sheik” and Theda Bara  in “A Fool There Was”, for with little exaggeration, they’ve captured the essence of them both.

Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block (Photo: Joan Marcus)

There are John Jasper and the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle, the bartender, and most prominently the Princess Puffer who started out life as a nanny, and is now a prominent figure in the underworld.  Wacky one and all, and supplied with musical material that keeps us chuckling throughout the evening. There are two or three rousers as well, second cousins to the songs in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musicals, yet original enough to totally satisfy.

“Both Sides of the Coin”, “Never the Luck,” “Off To The Races,” “An English Music Hall” all join “There You Are” in the rouser department, filling the theatre with lilting melody and light hearted lyrics. When you combine all that with entertaining choreography, no one except those looking for substance and a message have any right to complain.

In addition to the endearing Mr. Norton, who came to us from Ireland only a few seasons back, and fortunately for us, remained, there are a bunch of Broadway names and a sprinkling of fresh young talent to keep the whole show bubbling along.

The unique and dazzling Chita Rivera takes a supporting role, and combining her uniqueness with staging that makes maximum use of her ways with a comic lyric and a presence that is never less than commanding, turns it into a star turn.  It’s no wonder she figures so prominently in the final scenes, the ones that are chosen by the audience, who become Mr. Dickens’ final collaborators. For it is they who decide each night which of five suspects is the killer, and which of the remaining principals is entitled to a romance with one of the others. Depending on who is chosen for what, there is a Plan B,C,D and E with which the cast is prepared to complete their play.

One final kudo. Proving that I have a point when complaining about the dreadful sound design on some musicals, this one by Tony Meola (his eighth for the Roundabout) is impeccable. Every word is clear, every note soars without distortion (and there are some very stunning high notes sung beautifully by Gregg Edelman, Stephanie J Block, Betsy Wolfe and Nicholas Barasch among others). I thank Mr. Meola and Scott Ellis, too, for I’m certain the director is in charge of all departments, including sound.

In all those departments, very ingenious, original, and great fun.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is onstage thru Feb 10, 2013 at Studio 54,  254 West 54th Street, New York, NY, 10019.
Details and tickets

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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