Return to Production

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (11/13/2012 - 03/10/2013)


AP: "Broadway revival of silly 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' gets huge boost from veterans"

Hopefully, everyone managed to vote last week. It’s one of our civic duties. But did you know there’s some voting that needs to happen on Broadway, too? That might be called your theatrical duty.

Three times toward the end of the inventive revival of the immensely silly “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the audience is called on to weigh in on resolutions to the story, either by a show of hands or clapping. Even the master of ceremonies admits it’s a “dangerously democratic move.”

We in the seats decide who we think is a mysterious detective’s real identity, who the murderer is at the heart of the play, and which couple from among the cast should fall in love. A blatant pandering to our interactive mindsets? Not at all. This was dreamed up in the mid-1980s.

Rupert Holmes, inspired by the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, has supplied the story, songs and lyrics to this bawdy, overstuffed, hammy and self-conscious show, whose revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Tuesday at its Studio 54 theater.

Perhaps the best part is watching the first-rate cast have so much fun — Stephanie J. Block shows real comedic power, Jim Norton is having a ball, Chita Rivera is giggly, Gregg Edelman is just silly and Will Chase is over-acting perfectly. So are Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl. This is a play where overacting can be done to perfection.

In one preview, genuine unscripted silliness followed the votes, matching the freewheeling nature of the show. Scott Ellis’ direction is tight — there’s almost 20 songs, more than 20 actors and multiple identities being juggled — and yet he’s allowed pockets of genuine mirth to open for the veterans on stage to goof around.

Holmes takes advantage of Dickens’ unresolved mystery to craft a show-within-a-show. It’s set in a London music hall in 1895 and a theatrical troupe is performing the mystery as the troupe’s chairman unspools the plot while introducing various actors and adding personal commentary.

The jokes are hoary, the songs are ditties (”Off to the Races” is the best known) and the mystery not so mysterious — “You might like to add that line to your list of suspicious statements!” says one character to the audience — but the fun is infectious, even if it seems that the folks on stage might be having more of it than the paying guests.

No matter: There’s the legendary Rivera (as the nefarious Princess Puffer) singing “The Wages of Sin,” there’s Chase (of “Smash” fame) chewing scenery and doing so marvelously, and there’s Block (cross-dressing as the title character) who sings and jokes superbly. Norton, as the chairman, is loony and adorable.

Other highlights include an opium dream beautifully realized by choreographer Warren Carlyle and Anna Louizos’ sets that includes a terrific steam-puffing train. William Ivey Long seems to have had as much fun making the lush costumes, especially the Indian-inspired ones worn by Mueller and Karl.

Although “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” won Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score in 1985, this is the first time it has returned to Broadway. The reason may be simple: In the wrong hands, it can sit awkwardly in a Broadway house — too zany, too arch. But these are the right hands: There are veterans at every turn. So no matter who gets the most votes, everyone wins.


New York Daily News: "Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Girls act like boys. Relatives double-cross kin. And a deadly puzzle stays unsolved until the audience gets in on the act.

So it goes in Rupert Holmes’ Tony-winning 1986 musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” The light-hearted romp is back on Broadway in a killer production for the Roundabout Theatre Company that’s joyously performed.

Based on the final, unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the show-within-a-show plays out as a Victorian music-hall troupe presents a production of “Edwin Drood.”

The plot follows the title character, a fine young Englishman, who vanishes. But why? Is he dead? And, if so, whodunnit?

Options abound for culprits — a jealous uncle, an addled beloved, a fiery foreigner, a dopey parish priest, among others. No one’s guilty until Act II, when the audience casts votes to complete the tale.

In the revival directed by Scott Ellis (“Curtains”) at Studio 54, we’re part of the action before it even begins. Actors shoot the breeze, jump-starting the essential feel of inclusiveness.

Once the show begins, Ellis and company make the most of Holmes’ winking book and wonderful score. Songs roam from a rousing “There You Are” to a dreamy “Moonfall” to an improbably pretty “Perfect Strangers.”

Warren Carlyle’s fluid choreography adds sensuality, especially in a drug-fueled fantasy. Anna Louizos’ colorful sets, William Ivey Long’s meticulous late 19th-century costumes and Brian Nason’s moody lighting drench the stage in atmosphere. Tony Meola’s sound design showcases each note and syllable.

Choosing the prize performer from the crackerjack cast is easy — it’s whoever’s on stage at that moment. Chita Rivera lends perfect luster as Princess Puffer, proprietress of an opium den with secrets. Nobody beams more twinkly magic than Jim Norton, who serves as a sort of emcee who keeps everyone on the same page.

TV’s “Smash” alum Will Chase captures the charming and repellent split personality of Edwin’s uncle, John Jasper, who lusts for his nephew’s fiancé, Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe, lovely).

As twin orphans from Ceylon, Jessie Mueller, a powerhouse singer, and Andy Karl spice things up nicely as Helena Landless and her hot-headed brother, Neville.

Last but hardly least, Stephanie J. Block shimmers with high-wattage charisma and a bright, clear voice as music-hall actress Alice Nutting. She dresses in drag to portray the doomed Edwin.

Drood’s demise means Alice’s role in the show is over. Narcissistic Nutting’s huffy departure, with her petite pooch tucked in her arm and a battleship-sized bustle trailing miles behind her, has had me laughing days after seeing “Drood.”

Sneers Alice as she exits, “Enjoy the show.”

I did.

New York Daily News

NY Post: "'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is jolly good fun"

You’d think a good musical could satisfy a theatergoer’s craving for entertainment. Some catchy songs, maybe a few dances, a bit of romance: Who could ask for anything more?

Rupert Holmes, that’s who. Instead of a regular show, the mastermind behind “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” — not to mention “The Pina Colada Song” — came up with a musical murder mystery and a killer gimmick: The audience votes for the culprit, and the ending is changed accordingly.

In other words, this is the poster child of high-concept tuners. So much so that it’s willing to stop dead in its tracks every night while the numbers are tallied — “a daring and perhaps dangerously democratic move,” as the narrator puts it.

“Drood,” which swept the Tonys in 1986, is now getting its first major revival. It’s a fine production, considering how tricky the piece is.

Based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished last novel, Holmes’ book is set up as a show-within-a-show. The conceit is that we’re watching a performance of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at London’s Music Hall Royale in 1895. The Studio 54 audience gets mock programs along with the regular Playbills, and the cast occasionally stalks the aisles for some vaudevillian mingling.

The Chairman (a mutton-chopped Jim Norton, late of “The Seafarer”) guides us through this hall of mirrors, pushing the action along and introducing the actors. And casting is key to this show: Holmes’ songs are serviceable at best, requiring hams willing to go over the top and beyond.

The biggest name here is Chita Rivera, in her first Broadway outing in seven years. She gets roaring ovations as Princess Puffer, “the underworld’s reigning monarch.” Perhaps she’ll let loose as the run goes on, but right now she seems a bit wan compared to her co-stars.

Chief among them is Stephanie J. Block (“9 to 5,” “The Boy From Oz”). As Alice Nutting, “London’s leading male impersonator,” she gets to play both Edwin Drood and “Man of Mystery” Dick Datchery. Proving she’s more than a belter, Block puffs out her chest and struts her stuff, and has come up with a hilarious walk for the stooped, bearded Datchery.

As befits a good melodrama — or operetta, since the show nods to Gilbert and Sullivan — “Drood” is packed with colorful villains and not-so-innocent heroines. Will Chase (TV’s “Smash”) plays to the rafters as a dastardly heel, while Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller glower in bronze makeup as a pair of scheming twins from Ceylon.

Meanwhile, Betsy Wolfe’s saucy, not-so-demure heroine is a crowd-pleaser. Singing beautifully and shamelessly flaunting her cleavage, she was voted the murderer the other night, by a landslide.

Director Scott Ellis could easily have pushed the pace into a gallop rather than a trot, and cranked up the zany-meter a notch or two. Still, for a show doing triple duty as musical, choose-your-own-ending mystery and time-travel device, “Drood” is jolly good fun.

NY Post

New York Times: "Raising the Dickens in All of Us"


That immemorial question still drives readers to the bookshelves or, these days, to any number of glow-in-the-dark devices. And with the explosion of social media inspiring a taste for talking back, the time seems especially ripe for the Roundabout Theater Company’s boisterous revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the 1985 Broadway musical that allows audiences to savor the satisfactions of impersonating Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, pointing an accusatory finger at a cowering culprit.

Charles Dickens died before finishing the novel of the title, leaving all sorts of questions hovering in the soupy air of the provincial English town where the story is primarily set. The pop songwriter Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this delectable trifle of a show (and took home two Tony Awards for his work), refashioned the novel into a live parlor game for theatergoers, tossing the crucial question — who slew Edwin Drood? — into the lap of the audience in the show’s finale.

Raise your hand for the mysterious Princess Puffer! Give a shout-out for the exotic Helena Landless! Insist, if you will, on blackening the name of the dew-dappled ingénue Rosa Bud!

The pleasure of fingering a killer is not the only one afforded by Scott Ellis’s exuberant production, which opened on Tuesday night at Studio 54. In an era when Broadway revivals of beloved musicals can seem dispiritingly skimpy, this handsome production offers a generous feast for the eyes, trimmed in holiday cheer for an added spritz of currency.

Studio 54 has been persuasively refashioned into a facsimile of a 19th-century English music hall by the set designer Anna Louizos, whose beautifully rendered flats sweep us from a convivial dining room to a cathedral graveyard to a steam-swathed train station. The luscious bustles and dapper tailcoats of the show’s ladies and gentlemen provide the veteran designer William Ivey Long a perfect palette for his ever-rewarding frolics in the sartorial past.

And the evening’s performers — including a bona fide Broadway grande dame, Chita Rivera; a host of plush-voiced singers; and the jovial imp Jim Norton as the evening’s M.C. — throw themselves into the winking spirit of the show. The machinations of the mystery plot dance in dizzying rhythmic counterpoint to the story framing the musical, of a veteran troupe of music hall players performing a stage version of Dickens’s tale, even as they bicker and mug and tell hoary jokes to cajole the audience into a state of happy delirium.

As the proud proprietor of the Music Hall Royale, Mr. Norton excels as the purveyor of jokes that still raise a laugh even when they’ve got whiskers longer than the mysterious Dick Datchery of the plot. He twinkles and leers with commendable grace, introducing his loyal cast of egocentric players as they take the stage to enact the story of love, betrayal and, just possibly, murder.

In keeping with pantomime tradition, these include a woman, Miss Alice Nutting (Stephanie J. Block, ardent and in firm, throbbing voice) as the “principal boy” playing Edwin Drood. The friend/foil to the good-natured Edwin is the mustache-twirling villain John Jasper, played with hissable, histrionic flair by the magnetic Will Chase in the guise of the preening leading man Mr. Clive Paget.

Confused by all this nomenclature? Perhaps it’s time to ignore the framing device and concentrate on the already sufficiently complicated array of characters in Dickens’s tale. The role of Edwin’s betrothed, the beauteous young Rosa Bud, who has awakened unseemly lust in the heart of Jasper, is sung with a shimmering vocal beauty by Betsy Wolfe. The young newcomers to the provincial town of Cloisterham, fresh off the boat from Ceylon, are the devoted brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless, portrayed with silly imitation exoticism by Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller, both in absurd burnt-umber makeup and excellent voice.

Scavenging for laughs with admirable ferociousness are a host of fine actors in minor roles: Gregg Edelman as the upstanding (or is he?) Rev. Mr. Crisparkle; Robert Creighton, grittily dissipated as the gravestone carver Durdles; and Peter Benson, exuding hapless awkwardness as the would-be playwright Bazzard (also the would-be star Mr. Phillip Bax, who makes pointed fun of the correspondences between role and actor).

Ms. Rivera has always been better known for her expressive gams than for silken vocalizing. As Princess Puffer, the proprietor of a London opium den frequented by the nefarious Jasper (one of the show’s draggier moments is his druggy dream sequence), Ms. Rivera is undertaking a role created for a supremely gifted singer, Cleo Laine, who also had the advantage of being British and thus naturally conversant with a Cockney accent.

But these drawbacks evaporate shortly after Ms. Rivera sweeps onstage, trailing a welcome air of effortless glamour as the senior diva of the troupe. Bathing in the audience’s rapturous reception, she’s both in character and merrily out of it, and our affection for Ms. Rivera only increases the pleasure we take in the musical’s multiple layers: we can cheer her shamelessly without feeling like vulgarians.

Mr. Holmes’s rich pudding of a score contains plenty of nuggets redolent with period charm: the soaring ballad “Moonfall”; “Perfect Strangers,” a melancholy duet for Edwin and Rosa; and the flavorsome operatic ensemble number “No Good Can Come From Bad,” to single out my favorites. It’s skillful pastiche perfumed with real affection, and sounds pleasurably timeless.

Despite its varied charms, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” remains a musical that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its hard-working parts. The overelaborate finale — which includes not only the choosing of the murderer but also the selection of a detective and a happy couple to be paired off — somewhat taxes our delight in taking part. And at times the plot of the mystery itself is obscured by the restless antics of the framing device.

But then, who has not felt a bit deflated upon completing a page-turning detective story? Most of the fun is in the clue following, the red herring spotting and the seat-clutching tension as the suspects gather in the drawing room for the moment of exposure. The musical “Edwin Drood” at least leaves behind moments of shimmering musical pleasure to savor, long after the miscreant of the night has been booed off the stage.

New York Times

Newsday: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Long before we all could vote people off the island for our own entertainment, there was "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Rupert Holmes wrote the book and the score for the 1985 show, which was based on the 1870 novel that Charles Dickens never finished.

The gimmick is that the audience gets to vote the ending -- that is, solve the murder. When I first saw the show at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, I deduced that, after the vote, all the thing needed was a beginning and a middle.

"Drood" moved to Broadway and went on to make many, many people happy for a long time. It also won five Tony Awards, including best musical. I mention the credits because, really, this is one of those Martian experiences in which either everyone in the theater is from another planet or I am.

This is a novelty item, tricked-up with cutesy tangents as a play-within-a-play at a provincial English music hall. Everyone in director Scott Ellis' wonderful-looking production works very hard at jollying up the audience at the start, rallying a sing-a-long and, ultimately, conducting the voting. Then, the murderer confesses in song.

The show does have some jaunty, quasi-operetta music with beautiful harmonic blends and a ravishing cast -- including Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer, madam of the opium den, and Jessie Mueller as the slinky-to-her-eyebrows Helena Landless, who, with her brother (Andy Karl) brings a bit of Colonial commentary as the exotics from Ceylon. Jim Norton maneuvers around the fast-patter songs with aplomb as the emcee; Stephanie J. Block is authoritative as Drood, the young gentleman who disappears. His beloved (Betsy Wolfe) is coveted by the opium fiend-music teacher (Will Chase).

The elaborate painted flats by Anna Louizos appear designed to stay in the theater for a long time, while William Ivey Long's costumes are crazy-good with brocades and bustles. Warren Carlyle's choreography includes drug-induced hallucinations with charming chorines.

Instead of trusting the characters and the mystery to build the suspense, however, Holmes aims for the campy, tiresome and childish. To vote, one presumably cares about who does what to whom. Considering Dickens' storytelling genius, the real mystery is why this isn't fun.


Variety: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

The Roundabout's revival of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a diverting and amiable entertainment. Rupert Holmes' unconventional musical -- derived from Dickens' 1870 serial novel, unfinished when he died without a hint as to how he intended to tie up the plot -- was an exuberant romp when Joe Papp's Public Theater first produced it in 1985. The elements, and the highlights, remain the same, even if the ebullience at Studio 54 seems more manufactured than irrepressible in spots.

Broadway novice Holmes, from the pop-music world, came up with two novel gimmicks when developing this adaptation. He gives Dickens' moody piece a comic spin, placing it within the framework of an old-fashioned English music-hall stock company. He then takes audience participation to extremes by having ticket buyers vote nightly on whodunit. To that end, Holmes amplifies the fun by giving each of the characters a motive and stocking the plot with red herrings.

Director Scott Ellis, a Roundabout fixture since 1993, turns in his best musical outing in memory. He has imaginatively calibrated the 11 main comedic characters provided by Holmes, allowing them to ham things up thisshort of too much. He has also done a fine job extending the music-hall ambience across the board, coordinating his work with that of choreographer Warren Carlyle and the design team.

The best numbers work just as well as they did originally: the haunting "Nightfall," the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque tongue-twister "Both Sides of the Coin," the extraneous but bouncy production number "Off to the Races" and the ever-delicious "Don't Quit While You're Ahead." But there are others, as the first act winds along, that border on melodramatic operetta filler.

Ellis and his team have assembled a winning and comically adroit cast. Best of the group are Will Chase ("High Fidelity") as the malevolently evil music teacher/drug addict; Jim Norton ("Finian's Rainbow") as the music hall's master of ceremonies; and especially Jessie Mueller ("On a Clear Day") as an out-of-place transplant from Ceylon with turquoise-shadowed eyes. Mueller can't turn her head without getting a roar from the audience and cannily milks it for all it's worth.

Adding to the fun are Andy Karl as Mueller's Ceylonese brother and musical-comedy veteran Gregg Edelman as the local reverend. The two leading ladies, Stephanie J. Block (as Drood) and Betsy Wolfe (as the virtuous Rosa Bud), both handle their songs adroitly, although they don't manage to maintain their presence out of the spotlight as Chase and Mueller do.

Chita Rivera, as the opium-dealing Princess Puffer, is an always-welcome presence and a great audience favorite, but the role doesn't play to her strengths; she is first and foremost a dancer. Prior Puffers have added extra oomph by standing slightly outside the story, interacting conspiratorily with the audience and knocking the songs and jokes across the footlights. Rivera, for all her talents, doesn't seem to have that type of outsized personality.

The production is one of the handsomest from Roundabout in years. Set designer Anna Louizos combines the look of the music hall with the style of Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, with grand results. William Ivey Long has a field-day with his costumes, and lighting designer Brian Nason takes full advantage of the opportunities presented.

The fun actually begins before the show starts; the ushers wear period coats and hats, the "music hall" actors roam the stalls, and even the orchestra -- split between the boxes on the sides of the house, as usual at Studio 54 -- seems part of the crowd. (The estimable Paul Gemignani, climbing to his customary conductor's perch in the house left box, sports a little black hat emblazoned with what look to be bells or berries.) From the first downbeat, this "Drood" is indeed "off to the races," albeit with some minor, muddy patches along the way.


  Back to Top