Sandwiched in-between he monolith musicals that stormed their way from the West End to Broadway throughout the 1980s (Evita, Cats, Les Miserables, etc.) was a different kind of British import, one that was, in fact, given new life by an American. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a 1985 Public Theater production, was musicalized and adapted from no less British a source than Charles Dickens himself. But there’s a hitch – “Drood” was the novel Dickens was working on upon his death, and it remained unfinished, the plot unresolved, the mystery unsolved.
Lyricist/librettist/scorer/orchestrator Rupert Holmes, the writer-musician behind such pop hits as “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and “Him,” as well as the smart bio-play Say Goodnight Gracie, found a way to theatricalize this seemingly dead-end show with a meta move that predates Charlie Kaufman’s work by more than a decade. The proper plot of “Drood” is merely the meat of a show-within-a-show, set within the London Music Hall Royale in 1895, as an acting troupe performs “Drood” as an incomplete play, so the cast plays both singing Dickensian characters as well as hammy actors on various spots along the insecure-egotistical actors’ spectrum, mugging for audience love.
The inner plot is this: in Cloisterham, Drood (a gender-crossing Stephanie Block) is the nephew of John Jasper (a superb Will Chase), a twisted cleric who smokes opium provided by Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera) and pines for singing pupil Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), who is engaged to Drood. Rosa is also the affectionate object for the Sri Lankan-esque Neville Landless, who has come from the British colony of Ceylon with his twin sister Helena; the rapscallion-like siblings, drenched in tan makeup, are played to the hilt by Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller. Jim Norton is The Chairman, a mutton-chopped host who introduces the action and characters, tongue often planted severely firmly in cheek.
After Drood disappears on Christmas Eve and is presumed dead, the outer layer of Drood begins, and it’s when the audience plays its role that director Scott Ellis really shows off his flair for moving slick shows like well-oiled machinery. There isn’t a clumsy misstep as the cast – which includes fine performances by Peter Benson, Robert Creighton, and especially Gregg Edelman in smaller roles – exhorts the audience in character to determine a villain, a detective, and a couple to fall in love at show’s end. It’s all very cute, but despite a winning, albeit slight, score that includes “Moonfall,” “No Good Can Come From Bad” and “Perfect Strangers,” Drood is more of a curio than a classic. Few of the technical elements, such as Brian Nason’s distracting lighting or Warren Carlyle’s serviceable choreography lift the musical to any greater heights, although I did occasionally find myself salivating over William Ivey Long’s dancehall era costumes.
No, Drood isn’t the kind of show that lingers, ultimately, but what does last is the sight of a talented cast clearly enjoying their part in this lighthearted show. Block, in great voice, is a comic triumph as Drood and Alice Nutting, her actress-y “outer role,” and it’s nice to see workhorse actor Karl continue his climb to musical stardom. Chase is magnetic, and even if her singing is a little wanting, Rivera looks like she is having a ball onstage (has she ever not?). Most especially though, just as she did last year in On A Clear Day…, the magnetic Mueller damn near steals the show. I cannot wait to see this gifted talent play the lead soon.
In the meantime, I have only one other quibble with the show. Why did no one serve piña coladas?
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Thru Feb. 10. www.roundabouttheatre.org.
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