The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Not So Mysterious

Rupert Holmes makes light of the Dickensian darkness

It takes some effort to locate the name “Charles Dickens” on the title page of the Playbill for the new revival of Rupert Holmes’s 1985 musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Roundabout Studio 54). You can find it, however, in footnote-size type, leading the list at the bottom of the page: “Suggested by the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens.” Even the fake program you’re also given, for the “Music Hall Royale” where, in Holmes’s framing device, the adaptation is supposedly being staged in 1895, omits mention of Dickens. That would have drawn hostile comment in 1895, when the late author was still the most popular and most beloved of British writers. Some of 1895's theater critics might have given the Music Hall Royale’s “chairman,” Mr. William Cartwright (Jim Norton), a very severe dressing down.

Holmes’s whimsy is muddled, though: Victorian music halls rarely presented adaptations of novels, or indeed full-evening works of any kind; they were variety theaters. His Drood confuses music hall with melodrama, which shared its audience but was very different in both substance and structure. Still, neither this nor the issue of Dickens’s credit matters very much: Drood is chiefly an excuse to use the stereotyped posturing that a misinformed modern audience associates with Victorian popular entertainment, purely to provide that audience with an evening’s distraction.

And—unless you actually happen to care about Dickens, or about the theater that he loved and that adored him in return—a fair amount of noisy, largely pointless fun can be gleaned from Drood. Director Scott Ellis makes noise and distraction the show’s principal qualities. (The late Wilford Leach, in 1985, put a tad more mystery into the mix.) Every second number seems to end in a full-company kick line, concluded with a whomping of drums and brass. Few scenes go on for more than three lines without the “chairman” interrupting the action to introduce some cast member who has just entered, and who must naturally break the scene to step forward and take a bow. And, of course, Dickens’s having left the novel unfinished supplies Holmes with the gimmick that has made Drood a popular community-theater piece: The audience gets to vote, amid much raucous campaigning and rabble-rousing in the aisles, on whether Edwin Drood is dead or not and, if so, who killed him.

Cathedral town tuner:  Rivera, Block, and Chase
Joan Marcus
Cathedral town tuner: Rivera, Block, and Chase

Details

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
By Rupert Holmes
Roundabout Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org

Yes, it’s all very amusing if you like its sort of thing. To gauge from surviving evidence, including recorded performances by 1890s music-hall stars who lived on into the 20th century, the Victorians had a better sense of how to bring it off than we do today. Norton, the feisty, white-haired Irish actor who gives by far the evening’s best performance, shows his grasp of the style precisely through his ease and quietness. You attend to him because he carries out each of his tasks—acting, singing, dancing, emceeing—as fully as he can without pushing. That his light-footed steps lack the athleticism of the Broadway gypsies surrounding him, and that his voice occasionally falters at the big blustery climaxes Holmes’s songs demand, ultimately seem more like rebukes to the show’s overall approach than criticisms of Norton’s work.

Broadway’s aggressive, let-me-entertain-you-or-else dance style, conveyed here through standard stuff from choreographer Warren Carlyle’s second drawer, is too insistent for the era Drood means to evoke. Holmes’s largely pleasant but forgettable score—the hit tune filched from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin isn’t the only one that may make you feel you’ve heard it somewhere else—invariably does tend to push too hard, as pop composers will, slamming socko endings onto both ballads and up tunes, a habit that quickly gets wearisome. (Note to aficionados: The score has been rejiggered somewhat from the earlier Broadway versions, bringing one bit of good news—the restoration of one of Holmes’s better songs, “A British Music Hall,” cut, back then, after the show’s initial run outdoors at the Delacorte.)

The oddest aspect of Drood is that its nonstop efforts to jollify and divert often suggest an almost manic repudiation of its source material. Despite The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s many gestures toward melodramatic excess—an opium den, a graveyard at midnight, a detective who inexplicably turns up out of nowhere, an orphaned ingenue with the blatant type-name Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe)—Dickens’s unfinished novel clearly conveys darkness in the morally somber as well as the creepy-sinister showbiz sense.

The scene is an English cathedral town, full of homey Dickensian characters with endearing tics and eccentric names like Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) and Durdles (Robert Creighton). But Dickens sets against them the story of Edwin (Stephanie J. Block), a brash young orphan boy, half-following and half-resisting the destiny his deceased parents have laid out for him, in constant unspoken conflict with his thoroughly hypocritical villain of an uncle, John Jasper (Will Chase), a music teacher and cathedral choir singer. Jasper, in secret an opium addict, happens to be in love with his nephew’s destined bride, Rosa (the youngsters’ deceased parents arranged the match), and is plotting Edwin’s murder, to take place at Christmas. Not your usual cathedral-town tale of seasonal good cheer.

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