by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic

The Mystery of Edwin DroodCharles Dickens’ novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was the last work in his illustrious career.  Noted for his well-drawn, meticulous characterizations, Drood presents a particular problem, for Dickens unfortunately died before the novel was completed. What rudeness, you may say!  How dare he? Literary experts have never come to a definitive conclusion as to how it was destined to have ended. So the resounding question remains, who killed Edwin Drood, or was he even murdered at all?

For the Christmas season experience, this murder mystery, musical adaptation is pure entertainment–it is so good it should be presented every year, since the dastardly deed unexpectedly takes place the night before Christmas.  The set-up is a play within a play. We’re offered a Victorian English music hall, and an assembled cast of players chosen to present Drood as part of their repertory.  The fabulously authentic portrayal of the Chairman by Jim Norton, introduces us to the characters and their roles. He gives direction and informs the audience.  In short, we are given song, dance, gags, low brow humor, and  music pouring in from the boxes, with characters running all around the decorated house. The atmosphere is electric and non-stop, light and dazzling.

What evolves is an over-the-top melodrama, on what else, but the entanglements of love, lust, and desire.  The object of this nefarious attention is Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), the naive, but voluptuous, ingenue that sets fire in the hearts of the likes of a suspicious vicar, a mad choirmaster, an exotic visitor from Ceylon, and others of particular interest–drunks, schemers, and louts. The obstacle to their collective desires is none other than dashing Edwin Drood, Rosa’s betrothed, portrayed in drag, adding to the audience confusion,  by clear-voiced and winsome, Stephanie Bock. Drood is a marked man (woman).

Another curious figure is The Princess Puffer, played by Chita Riviera, who owns the local opium den. What an inspiration it is to see this legend of Broadway perform once again.  Watching her, you are smitten with the fact that her career began in the early 1950’s, and are gratefully aware of how lucky we are to see a real pro go through her paces; she still has all the timing and talent working in her song, dance and comedy, and makes the evening very special with the songs, Settling Up The Score, and the big production number, Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.

Will Chase shines as the choirmaster, and is very funny and passionate in his portrayal,and  his voice projects.  He and Jim Norton do a wonderful interlude of music hall madness in Both Sides of the Coin. Andy Carl, who plays Neville Landless from Ceylon, and his twin sister, Helena Landless (Jessie Mueller), are fabulous in their suspicious portrayals, complete with pseudo Indian accents and manner. Both are very talented, and add electricity and crazy humor to their roles and songs.

In the end, the audience gets to vote on the culprit and try to channel Dickens’ final wishes. Nightly the guilty one is different, so the cast must adjust and finish the show with a complexity of endings. One must follow the clues, clues that meander and lead to misdirection and intrigue. The dancers are the only ones who escape suspicion, but they have already done their shimmering work, especially in the dark scene of Princess Puffer’s opium den.  I can’t remember having a better time at the theatre, and this show comes highly recommended.

Book, music, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes–great concept, delightful work.
Directed by Scott Ellis

Now Playing until March 10, 2013 at Roundabout Theatre Co. at Studio 54

Stephanie J. Block Edwin Drood
Will Chase John Jasper
Gregg Edelman Reverend Mr. Crisparkle
Jim Norton Chairman
Chita Rivera Princess Puffer
Andy Karl Neville Landless
Jessie Mueller Helena Landless
 Betsy Wolfe Rosa Bud
Peter Benson Bazzard
Alison Cimmet Ensemble
Kyle Coffman Ensemble
Nick Corley Ensemble
Janine DiVita Ensemble
Jenifer Foote Ensemble
Shannon Lewis Ensemble
Kiira Schmidt Ensemble
 Spencer Plachy Ensemble
Eric Sciotto Ensemble
Jim Walton Ensemble

 Photo (above) by Joan Marcus:  Chita Riviera in The Mystery of Edwin Drood