The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Roundabout Theater Company)

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that charming beast, a Broadway musical destined only for the stage.  With so many blockbuster shows designed nearly more around the concept album, the chart-topping OLC/OBC, the inevitable movie musical, the touring production, and the high school reproduction than the actual West End or Broadway run, it’s always refreshing to see a production that’s at its apex as theater.  Which Drood is.  Actually, it’s fairly rubbish as anything else.  Part of why it’s a little hard to get people into it is that in this day and age of trading Wicked mp3s and such, people are drawn to shows they can “experience” beforehand by listening to the original soundtrack, musicals with big aria-style showstoppers that don’t need a lot of context and can be butchered on Glee with little adjustment, ahem.  This is bad enough for Sondheim numbers which can’t be elegantly ripped out of the context into which they were elegantly woven in the first place; it’s even worse for Drood, which, as a metafictional performance about bad theater, out of context just seems like bad theater.  It’s not!  It’s massively entertaining theater.  And I hope this revival does well, because we could always use more like it.

It’s also interactive, an attribute that’s hard to foster in a movie or an OBC recording.  Watching the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood reminded me why little media and art forms like the audience-participation show and the IF game still deserve their ongoing preservation, even if they can’t be mass-produced and mass-marketed as easily as many others; Drood was fun, impossible not to get caught up in and have a rollicking good time in a way that’s hard to achieve in a bombastic Cameron Mackintosh megaproduction without an utterly stellar cast.

For those not familiar with the musical’s premise, Charles Dickens was halfway through his last, peculiar novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, before he went and carked it, leaving the solution and much of the plot of the book as a favorite mystery for Victorianist scholars for time to come.  Rupert Holmes’ musical takes this unfinished work and adapts it to a musical — or rather, to a musical displaying a group of loud, hammy music-hall performers putting on a musical version of the unfinished Dickens, down to calling for an audience vote for the ending and putting it on once it’s counted.  It’s all very Tristram Shandy.  It’s pretty delightful.

The book is ridiculous.  The musical book, that is, not Dickens’ (which was probably going to be ridiculous too, but we expect that from Victorians).  With the exception of “Moonfall” and maybe “A Man Could Go Quite Mad” and their ending reprises, virtually none of the songs are standalone-listenable, and that’s quite all right because Drood is not a show where the performers stand around like befuddled opera stars and belt — they dance, they narrate, they’re constantly throwing in sight and verbal gags on the show, the invented music hall, and the audience.  It takes a lot of talent — onstage and backstage — to pull that off, not just singing chops, but thankfully the Roundabout Theater Company brings that quite handily to the table.  The staging is clever and dynamic and never lets you get bored. The show reminded me of what can be done with a stage show that can’t be done with a movie or soundtrack, and what a shame it is therefore that so many shows simply don’t make use of the medium.  It’s incredibly competent for something with such incredibly bad rhymes.  A Paul Gemignani score (and conducting!) helps matters.

Scott Ellis’s direction is lively and handles the actors well; of the stars Chita Rivera is the biggest name on the cast, playing a secondary (but evidently audience-popular!) role as jaded madame and drug-pusher Princess Puffer, whose existence in the Dickens text remained unexplained at the time of the author’s death.  The strongest singers were well-placed as leads John Jasper, Edwin Drood, and Rosa Bud; the standout of the three was a charming and bizarrely adorable Will Chase as insane, drug-addicted, lecherous music-master John Jasper, with Betsy Wolfe’s sarcastic and somewhat unhinged “ingenue” Rosa Bud (and the shamelessly flirtatious music hall actress playing her) as a close second, and Stephanie J. Block entertaining with her gender-bending performance as cocky young heir Edwin Drood and the primadonna male impersonator playing him.

Roundabout’s staging is full of queer flirtation and nods and winks to the members of the audience who aren’t white-haired tourists, which is enjoyable and difficult to miss.  The most questionable choice on Roundabout’s part (and on Drood‘s part in general) is the usage of yellowface to lampoon both Dickens’ treatment of Ceylonese characters Neville and Helena Landless and Victorian music hall’s laughably bad portrayal of “half-caste” Asian characters; while Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller are hilarious in their roles, one can’t help but wonder if the irony might be lost on a lot of theater audiences just snickering at the perceived ridiculousness of over-the-top stereotyped Asian dress and behavior, and a much better subversion might have been accomplished by casting Asian actors in both roles, Broadway being notoriously unfriendly to the ambitions of non-white-and-Western actors.  The real highlight of the cast, however, is Jim Norton, who plays master of ceremonies and a reluctant, sardonic version of the town’s mayor when an alcoholic Music Hall Royale actor is indisposed: wheels within wheels!  His comic timing is fantastic and it’s impossible not to laugh at his jokes, even the weaker ones.

Listening to Drood out of context, you can’t appreciate the meaning of numbers like “No Good Can Come From Bad” — which features lines like “Something in this speech seems ominous to me!” and “Night must follow day!” — without seeing the actors pantomime out spoof Victorian actors putting on a spoof Victorian play, complete with dramatic spotlights; the show’s put on with a constant wink and elbow in the ribs, and it has to be.  It works.  It’s a great deal of fun and more productions should take lessons from Roundabout about the lively potential of audience-interactive theater.

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About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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