"You decide!" Remember that ad? It was the tag line to the marketing campaign for the original production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, now resurrected by the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. That line refers to the main premise of the show that derives from the fact that Charles Dickens died before completing his story about young Mr. Drood. Setting out the exposition, setting the stage for the crime (if there is one) he abruptly expired, having written only six of a planned twelve installments. The original Dickens story is intriguing and has compelled many to posit how the great author would have finished his work. Enter playwright Rupert Holmes, for whom the necessity of an end becomes the mother of a clever invention: create a bunch of endings each pertaining to one potential villain, have the actors learn all the possibles endings, and have the audience vote for its own solution to the riddle of the Mystery. It sounds like a hokey tourist audience lure, but resist shunning this seeming siren of silliness, for this is a splendid, exuberant revival!
It all works marvelously, under the guise of a play-within-a-play structure making the Studio 54 theater a British Music Hall, where its stock ensemble brings us Drood through an added layer, that of the characters who are the resident performers at the Music Hall. For instance, Will Chase plays Mr. Clive Paget, an actor at the Music Hall who plays the villain (or is he?) John Jasper in Drood. Stephanie J. Block is the leading pants roll actress Miss Alice Nutting at the Music Hall who portrays Drood in Drood. Chita Rivera is the renowned chanteuse Miss Angela Prysock at the Music Hall giving us her turn as the notorious Princess Puffer in Drood. Thus, the core is British Music Hall, a genre probably unfamiliar to most Broadway audiences but really akin to American Vaudeville.
Set at the peak of Music Hall popularity in Victorian London of 1895, the creative team gives us a four star virtual wayback machine beginning in the lobby of Studio 54 which is re-cast as the lobby of London’s Music Hall Royale. The ushers are all in appropriate Victorian garb. That, plus the theater’s shabby chic proscenuium and balcony architecture all help invite us back in time. The company of actors, as their Music Hall personae, come in and banter with the audience pre-show. Soon the Chairman (the common appellation for a Music Hall master of ceremonies) welcomes us, sets the scene, and the fun begins.
Anna Louizos has designed an outstanding set. Primarily using backdrops which fly in and out and a few set pieces that roll on and off, the sum total wonderfully evokes a Victorian Music Hall. The scenic painting on those drops is executed particularly well – there are times you would swear that a vast three dimensional set is on stage. As usual, William Ivy Long does period costumes beautifully. There is in fact one gown, bustle and all, worn by Block that is jaw dropping gorgeous. Brian Nason’s lighting design fits the production nicely, on occasion even casting authentic footlight shadows on the set.
Holmes, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, has written a world that is a joy to enter. From the opening moment you just know you are in for a good time. Director Scott Ellis guides it all well, keeping up the pace but allowing us requisite moments of reflection. Warren Carlyle proves once more, in this production, that he is among Broadway’s foremost choreographers. One example, his “Jasper’s Vision/Smoke Ballet” is clever, mysterious and breathtaking.
The entire ensemble does a great job. Jim Norton takes on the Chairman and is the embodiment of Music Hall pastiche and panache. The aforementioned Chase and Block are marvelous. Chase’s emotional aria towards the end of the show is very impressive and Block displays an astonishing vocal range throughout. Also wonderful is Betsy Wolfe as Rosa Bud, an ingénue with some strong underpinnings who sings the haunting ballad “Moonfall,” perhaps Holmes’ best song, with heartfelt mellifluous magnificence. Equally fine: Gregg Edelman, Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller. As, respectively, the Reverend Crisparkle, and the twins Neville and Helena Landless, these three evince marvelous comic timing and excellent singing. But oh, what to say about Ms. Rivera? A true legend, she commands and wows without playing the diva card, making the role her own as if it were written for her, captivating us as only Chita Rivera can. What a pleasure to be in her company!
And what a pleasure to be in this company. Though not deep theatre, it is thoroughly entertaining. Holmes does his best to give us a moral in the final number, which is a nice message to take home, but if you miss its gist it hardly matters. Music Hall entertainment is in-the-moment fun and this production unabashedly entertains. Plus you get to participate in its outcome. You decide! How grand. But the best decision is to go in the first place!