I’ve seen the musical adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood twice now—first, in the 1990s, at a New Jersey community theater, then at the Roundabout Theatre Co. production at Studio 54, which closed this past weekend. In each case, five minutes after leaving the theater, I couldn’t hum any melodies or recall any lyrics from the show. That does, I think, point to a potentially game-ending aspect of this property, first created in 1985 by Rupert Holmes.
Nevertheless, especially in the case of the Roundabout exercise in theatrical joie de vivre, I thought I’d never seen a musical staged with such good humor, zest and affection. Maybe the backstage proceedings were as dark and violent as in this last, unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, but I’d never know it by what I had just witnessed.
True, Drood’s popularity, both in its most recent incarnation and in the smaller regional productions mounted since its original premiere, owes more than a little bit to its much-discussed marketing ploy: i.e., at each performance, the audience votes on the ending that Dickens hadn’t provided before his death in 1870. (Actually, two endings: they not only identify the murderer, but a couple to be married.)
But I don’t think that was the only factor underlying its success. The fun started with its “envelope,” or play-within-a-play, setting: an 1890s British theatrical troupe, the Music Hall Royale, is staging the mystery, thus allowing the Roundabout’s cast to double up on roles and satirize the conventions of music halls and Victorian melodramas (to which Dickens was addicted).
One of the most effective scenes was the Christmas Eve dinner. Amazingly, Dickens, that most theatrically minded of novelists, did not dramatize the events of that night in his unfinished work. As creator of the musical’s “book,” Holmes took up the challenge and handled it masterfully. I still have my reservations about the show’s lyrics and music (I can only account for the Best Musical Tony it won in its original production because of weak competition from Big Deal, Goblin Market and Personals), but not with the cleverness of Holmes’ plotting.
The “Chairman” introducing that melodrama—really, more like an emcee (or, given how wild the proceedings can be at times, the ringmaster)—was played by Jim Norton, in marvelously droll style as he delivered one straight-faced one-liner after another. The headliner was legendary Broadway musical-comedy star Chita Rivera (West Side Story, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman), still fascinating this time as the Princess Puffer, the mysterious proprietor of an opium den.
Stephanie J. Block, who replaced Sutton Foster as the redoubtable Reno Sweeney in the Roundabout’s Anything Goes, here had the opportunity to put her stamp on a different revival, and she made the most of both her cross-dressing role as the title character, as well as the diva of the theatrical troupe, Miss Alice Nutting. Playing Drood’s uncle John Jasper was Will Chase, who magnificently brought to the surface the secret torment of his character, who, as an opium-den visitor and worshipper of a much younger woman, resembled Dickens. (In the post-show discussion, Roundabout education dramaturg Ted Sod revealed Holmes’ feeling that, had Dickens managed to complete his novel, Robert Louis Stevenson would not have written Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, since the prototype of the evil, schizophrenic “double” would already have been created.)
Director Scott Ellis, who has helmed several other vibrant Roundabout shows (e.g., Harvey, Twelve Angry Men, Picnic), displayed a similar surehanded grasp of stagecraft here. The Mystery of Edwin Drood could, by now, have acquired as much dust as the home of Dickens’ unhappy Great Expectations spinster, Miss Havisham. This might not have been the most innovative musical comedy, but it was surely among the most crowd-pleasing that I’ve ever witnessed.