When I last encountered Landless — full disclosure, I performed with the group in a 2006 production — they seemed to delight in being charmingly slapdash and a bit ramshackle in their approach. Like rock n’ roll, the mess and lack of polish is the point, right? And it’s still the case now in their, what, 15th season? I note that they misspelled the title inside the program as “DOORD.” Ah, the more things change…
Landless got a lot of attention a few years back with their Progressive Metal re-arrangement of Sweeney Todd, with permission of Stephen Sondheim himself. This time around, they attempt another late 19th century London tale, Rupert Holmes’ Tony-winning adaptation of Charles Dickens’ unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, with a Holmes-approved re-arrangement they bill as Symphonic Metal. I’ll presume for argument’s sake there’s a difference between Symphonic and Progressive Metal.
On a dark and stormy night, Edwin Drood, ward of his uncle, choirmaster John Jasper, and long betrothed to the sweet young Rosa Budd, disappears on a walk with the hotheaded Neville Landless (no relation to the company, I presume). An overcoat lent to Edwin by Jasper that fateful evening is found later, stained with blood. Many fingers are pointed, and shortly after the mysterious Dick Datchery arrives on scene to investigate, Dickens had the audacity to die and leave the various plot threads dangling with very little indication of Drood’s fate or, if dead, by whose hand.
I wasn’t around for their Sweeney, but I thought the concept was inspired; a Metal arrangement of a dark and moody tale seemed a natural fit. The question is, does it suit itself to Drood as well? The play isn’t written in the dreary tone of the Dickens original; it’s more of a musical comedy, given the central conceits are that it’s a company of 1890’s music hall actors performing the story (the actors are playing actors playing Dickens’ characters) and that the audience votes on the killer at the end. So adding additional layers onto something already very meta-theatrical to begin with seems excessive. It’s meta… does it need to be metal?
I understand that small theatre companies that do musicals have to face the dilemma of pre-recorded music versus a live accompanist; Landless straddles both camps, three musicians (guitar, bass and keys) play live to a pre-recorded backing track. In addition to all the dark power chords, the hallmark of heavy metal — symphonic, progressive or otherwise — is apparently machine-gun fast double bass drums that permeate pretty much every song. Is this a problem? Well…
Maybe it’s my ears — I’ve reached the age where I watch Netflix with captions — but the sound mix and the quality of the audio equipment caused the singers to be largely drowned out by the music. There were only two mics for the cast so any song with three or more vocal parts proved especially challenging, and pity any actor who tried to push through unamplified. To their credit, when the music was pianissimo, the quality of the company’s singing came through admirably. All in all, though, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the score until I listened to the original soundtrack at home the next day. I presume it was a matter of budget.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Metal Version)
closes April 29, 2018
Details and tickets
The cast, on the whole, is quite strong. Lily Hoy, as Edwin Drood, draws ably from her skill set as a local metal singer. Simone Lewis, as the virginal Rosa Budd, elicits our sympathy for a character drooled over by pretty much all the men in the show. Landless lifer Ally Jenkins, as opium den matron Princess Puffer, has pipes and presence to spare. Matt Baughman continues to impress me as a gifted comic actor, and his spotlight number “Never The Luck” steals the show. Andrew Baughman also ably navigates Jasper’s laudanum-driven multiple personalities (predating Jekyll and Hyde, y’know).
Other highlights are the solid and assured presence of Tom Howley as Rev. Chrisparkle, and the comically inscrutable accents of Ben Ribler and Melissa LaMartina as twin orphans Neville and Helena Landless (fresh from Ceylon!), and the boisterousness of the evening’s emcee Steve Wannall as the Chairman. I am of mixed minds about audience participation, but the loose, relaxed and confident repartee between the ensemble is very engaging, especially at the top when audience can pose for selfies with Queen Victoria (aka Josh Speerstra) and Prince Albert (Jaydon Cihlar/Alexis Turbat).
It is alarming to me, however, that the performer who seemed to struggle the most with audibility — at least on the night I attended — was someone I’d never expect given their position and history with the company. I try to give benefit of the doubt; tech week and opening weekend can be brutal, especially for someone who wears so many hats.
Nonetheless, even if I have to round up to get to three stars with all the aforementioned technical and conceptual challenges, that Metal Dro(oooo)od somehow holds together is quite remarkable. Grab a couple beers and some popcorn out in the lobby, settle in, and for heaven’s sake don’t take it seriously. They’re having a ball, why shouldn’t you?
Landless is currently developing a Metal version of Carnival. If their goal is to corner the market on metal musicals, they have multiple titles to contemplate. If Andrew Lloyd Baughman can get the approval of his namesake, Jesüs Chrïst Süperstär seems a tailor-made choice (it was written for rock singers after all, so crank the amps up to 11 and have at it). Metal Phäntom? Metal Cäts? And if he says no, there are other options: Laibach and Loewe? Rodgers and Rammstein? Gilbert and Savatage?
Author’s note: Kenobi /ke-NO-bee/ (verb) 1. To have a single noteworthy or dubious contribution to popular culture that overshadows one’s significant, if not as popularly known, artistic achievements and legacy. (“It’s a pity that Alec Guinness has been Kenobied by Star Wars.”) 2. To make light of that person’s status, even in jest. (“I apologize for Kenobi-ing Rupert Holmes by referring to his 1979 pop hit when this review was first posted.”)
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD [SYMPHONIC METAL VERSION] . Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Melissa Baughman. Cast: Andrew Lloyd Baughman (Jasper), Matt Baughman (Bazzard), Jayden Cihlar or Alexis Turbat (Deputy), Tom Howley (Crisparkle), Lily Hoy (Drood), Ally Jenkins (Puffer), Melissa LaMartina (Helena), Simone Lewis (Rosa), Ben Ribler (Neville), Josh Speerstra (Durdles), Steve Wannall (Chairman). Orchestra: Darin Stringer (piano/synth), Matt Morgan or Chris Bowerman (guitar), Ray Shaw (bass). Metal arrangement by the Fleet Street Collective. Choreographer & Music Direction: Andrew Lloyd Baughman. Stage Manager: Amanda Williams. Produced by presented by Landless Theatre Company. Reviewed by John Geoffrion.
(On the night that I attended, Jayden Cihlar played Deputy and Matt Morgan played guitar. Oh, and per the audience vote, Crisparkle dunnit.)