The Mystery of Edwin Drood Review: No Mystery It’s Back on Broadway

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” The suspects stand on stage so that the audience can choose who’s the murderer.

At the very beginning of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the well-designed revival of Rupert Holmes’ inventive musical cleverly adapted from Charles Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, a character sings:

And it matters not to me

what part of town you come from,

we but cheer you’ve made it here at all!

How could Holmes have known, when he wrote those lyrics more than a quarter of a century ago, how resonant they would feel to me and surely many other members of the audience on the day we attended? It was shortly after Sandy hit, Broadway theaters were just reopening after having been shut down for three days, and as an incentive, the Roundabout was selling all tickets to Drood at Studio 54 for just $20.  Although there was still no easy way to get around the city, the theater was packed! Someone without heat or electricity – from the Dark Zone – could suddenly imagine what it must have felt like to visit a British music hall during the London blitz.

Given these circumstances, it is hard to judge “Drood.” But it would be difficult to apply normal dramatic criteria in any circumstances. “The Mystery of Drood” is not really a mystery. And, though the original Broadway production won the Tony as best musical in 1986 (along with four other Tony Awards), and some of the songs are wonderful, “Drood” is not exactly a musical either. Call Drood an entertainment, and a clever game.

Chita Rivera as The Princess Puffer, and Stephanie J Block as Edwin Drood in The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway

The Music Hall Royale, a troupe of Victorian actors, is putting on a play based on the Dickens novel. Each company member plays at least one character.  Drood himself is played by the company’s great male impressionist, Miss Alice Nutting (who in this production is portrayed by the splendid performer  Stephanie J. Block.) By the time Drood disappears, there are more than enough suspects to keep Agatha Christie busy.  John Jasper, portrayed by Will Chase (I’m dispensing with the names of the troupe’s characters), is  Drood’s envious uncle – envious because he has the hots for his music student Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), who is Drood’s fiancé. Reverend Chrisparkle (Gregg Edelman) had the hots for Rosa’s mother. Ceylon orphan Neville Landless (Andy Karl), recently arrived in England with his twin sister Helena Landless (Jessie Mueller), is hot-headed and takes an immediate disliking to Drood.  Other suspects: Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera) who runs an opium den and has a secret connection to Rosa; Bazzard (Peter Benson) who would do anything for attention; gravedigger Durdles (Robert Creighton) – I forget why he’s a suspect.

It’s a crowded rogues gallery, each getting little more than a scene and a song or two to arouse our suspicions, interrupted by various goings-on of the troupe (introductions, rivalries, jokes).  The cast is in fine voice and does stellar work, but the real stand-out in this production is the design — Anna Louizos sets and especially William Ivey Long’s costumes.
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Shortly Into Act II, “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” quits abruptly, and the troupe’s “chairman” (Jim Norton, an  appealing antic master of ceremonies)  announces that we have reached the point where Dickens stopped writing. There are now four questions that must be answered in order to continue the show.

  1. Drood has disappeared, but is he dead? (I’ll risk being accused as a spoiler to point out that only the troupe votes on this one, and the fix is in.)
  2. What is the secret identity of the detective who makes an appearance in Act II? (The choice is one of the characters to whom we were introduced in Act I.)
  3. Who is the murderer?
  4. Which two characters will fall in love with one another.

The audience votes on each of the last three questions. (To shy theatergoers: Nobody will force you to vote. It’s by a show of hands.) The show then proceeds with different songs and different scenes based on the vote at each performance.

Such interactive theater and meta fiddling around was more a novelty when “Drood” first hit Broadway, before such mischievous non-mysteries like “Twin Peaks” on TV or audience-determined outcomes like “American Idol,” and long before such “immersive” stage experiences that put theatergoers in control like “Sleep No More.”  The effect of all this playing around in “Drood,” whether intentional or not, is to keep the audience at a remove from Dickens’ story. This is not a show for serious consumers of mysteries, even though the man who created it – he wrote the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations – changed his name from David Goldstein to Rupert Holmes in honor of Sherlock. But  if there is no conventional mystery in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” there is also no mystery to its popularity.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

At Studio 54

Book, Music, Lyrics & Orchestrations by Rupert Holmes

Directed by Scott Ellis

Choreographed by Warren Carlyle; sets by Anna Louizos, costumes by William Ivey Long, lighting desined by Brian Nason, sound by Tony Meola

Cast: Stephanie J. Block (Edwin Drood), Will Chase (John Jasper), Gregg Edelman (Reverend Mr. Crisparkle),Jim Norton (Chairman) and Chita Rivera (Princess Puffer) with Andy Karl (Neville Landless), Jessie Mueller (Helena Landless), Betsy Wolfe (Rosa Bud), Nicholas Barasch (Deputy), Peter Benson (Bazzard), Robert Creighton (Durdles), Alison Cimmet, Nick Corley, Justin Greer, Shannon Lewis, Kiira Schmidt, Eric Sciotto, Jim Walton, Cody Williams.

Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission

Tickets: $42 to $147

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is scheduled to run through February  10, 2013

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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