“Let’s all be as vulgar and uncivilized as possible!” shouts one character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the joyfully boisterous production in performances at Studio 54. While this exuberant, interactive, choose-your-own ending musical may be a bit vulgar, it is also skilfully directed, joyously performed and a darn good time in a season of unimpressive musicals on Broadway.
Based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel (the author died suddenly before completing it and thus revealing the killer), The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, sets up the mystery beautifully and then provides the audience with the opportunity to choose the killer of the title character. It is also told as a show within a show, so each member of the cast performs at least two parts – one of an actor and the other of the character. For example, Will Chase plays Mr. Clive Paget, who in turn plays the mysterious John Jasper, the uncle of Edwin Drood, who is played by the skilled impersonator of men, Miss Alice Nutting, and both of those roles are played by Stephanie J. Block. The music hall production of this story is narrated by Mr. William Cartwright, who also plays the Chairman in the show, and performed with wink and a twinkle by the capable Jim Norton.
Confused yet? If not, don’t worry. You will be.
We first meet young Drood when he visits his uncle Jasper, a choral teacher with a deep, dark secret. Drood is about to marry the lovely Miss Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), but fears his marriage will suffer from lack of passion – a passion that Uncle Jasper feels for Miss Bud quite strongly and secretly. This romantic trio soon meets the orphaned twins Neville and Helena Landless (Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller) of the British crown colony of Ceylon, who are now under the protection of the Reverend Criskparkle (Gregg Edelman). The dashing Neville is immediately interested in Rosa, to the wrath of Drood and the defense of the spirited Helena. For good measure, why not toss a salty opium dealer named Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), who is privy to a secret or two of Jasper’s. Following Drood’s disappearance on a stormy Christmas Eve, the hunt for Drood’s murderer commences, and much mischief and merriment follows.
Directed by Scott Ellis, this lavish production is interactive, with the cast members pacing the aisles and chatting up (and heckling) the audience members before the opening number. Studio 54 has been transformed into a bright and cheery 19th-century English music hall with picturesque set designs by Anna Louizos that evoke the story-book mystery mood, and William Ivey Long’s time-period costumes feature all of the hustle and bustle needed to complete the transformation from reality to fantasy.
And what a fantasy it is. With a superb ensemble that is clearly having more than just a fine time onstage, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a robustly enjoyable production. Norton brings a dignified and cheerful authenticity to the Chairman who helpfully points out suspicious moments to the audience, and Chase’s ample charms, as well as a mustache-twirling, eyebrow-arching dark side, to Jasper. (The duet between the two on “Both Sides of the Coin” is especially excellent.) As the virginal ingenue Rosa Bud, Wolfe’s soaring soprano is beautifully exhibited, as well as her sly humor, which is extremely sexual. Block is in fine form as the titular character, featuring her excellent comedic timing and belting voice to the part. (Her few moments as Alice Nutting are also hilarious.)
Karl shines as the passionate Neville, especially good at striking dramatic poses, and Mueller is clearly having a great time as the fiery Helena. Edelman gives a solid performance as the Reverend, and Rivera fills the stage with her grand presence and flashing a glimpse or two of her famed dancing legs. The choreography, by Warren Carlyle, features a broad range of jovial and mischievous to sexy and mysterious, the latter being a depiction of Jasper’s opium high in the Princess Puffer’s den.
To tell much more about The Mystery of Edwin Drood would reveal too many of the show’s jokes; instead I will leave you with this equally as confusing mystery: How did a show this clever, entertaining and enthralling take this long to be revived on Broadway?