Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Murder Can Be Fun (Provided You Have the Right Cast)

Review:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The merry muderers of the Music Hall Royale in their rendition of "The Cell Block Tango"

Let’s get one thing straight:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood – the 1985 musical murder mystery with book, music, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes – is a terrible show.  The music is bland, unmemorable, and breaks so many rules of good theatrical composition that the mind boggles.  The poorly constructed book consists of an endless parade of paper-thin characters prattling on about nothing, with an abundance of puns thrown into the mix to distract the audience from the fact that nothing is actually happening.  The show’s central gimmick, allowing the audience to pick an ending for Charles Dickens’ unfinished final novel of the same name, is a good one, but Drood relies so heavily on that conceit that the initial two hours suffer mightily in comparison.  Rarely have I found so few redeeming qualities in a Broadway musical.

Having said all that, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival is an excellent production that manages to transcend all of the script’s shortcomings to emerge as one of the most entertaining musicals of the fall season.  The hilarious and supremely talented ensemble cast features a host of Broadway veterans all doing excellent work, and the magnificent physical production offers a richly colored tapestry on which the show unfolds.  This is an excellent mounting of a horrible show, and only the most jaded audience members won’t find at least some enjoyment among the production’s many charms.

The show is set in the fictional Music Hall Royale of London during the Victorian era, and the resident acting troupe has taken it upon themselves to present a musicalized adaptation of the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.  The show-within-a-show concerns the drug-addicted John Jasper’s unhealthy attraction to the beautiful Rosa Bud, who has been betrothed to marry Edwin Drood since birth.  Other characters in the tale include twin siblings Helena and Neville Landless, their caretaker the Reverend Crisparkle, opium purveyor Princess Puffer, and the town’s resident drunk Durdles.  What any of these characters have to do with one another remains something of a mystery, even after the show’s conclusion, and matters are further complicated by the fact that the Music Hall Royale’s actors are constantly breaking character to make asides or react to scripted mistakes.  Thankfully, the characters of Drood and the fictional actors who play them are brought to such uniformly charming life by the show’s cast that this narrative murkiness doesn’t really matter.

Donning drag to portray the titular character, Stephanie J. Block has found the perfect vehicle to showcase her many talents.  Block’s natural charisma helps taper the character’s more abrasive qualities, and her broadly comedic portrayal provides plenty of belly laughs.  Her spine-tinglingly good voice makes Holmes’ amateurish songs sounds leagues better than they actually are, and her rendition of the show’s finale is positively thrilling.  She also possesses a winning chemistry with Betsy Wolfe’s delightfully coquettish Rosa Bud, and the pair is nothing short of enchanting whenever they share the stage.

Will Chase is clearly having a blast as the cartoonishly sinister John Jasper, and his delight in the role’s over-the-top nature is infectious.  He’s the type of villain you love to hate, even if his excessive snarling sometimes prevents him from making the best use of his strong singing voice.  Andy Karl’s hot-headed Neville Landless is a hoot, and as his twin sister with the “geographically untraceable accent” Jessie Mueller continues to prove that she’s one of the most versatile actresses of her generation.  Doing a complete one-eighty from her equally winning work as Cinderella in this summer’s Into the Woods, Mueller’s Helena Landless emanates a steely resolve and exotic beauty that extends to the back of the balcony and beyond.  Mugging in all the right places and given too few opportunities to demonstrate her superb alto singing voice, Mueller is one of the show’s strongest assets, and although her part is sizeable she still leaves you wanting more.

This Drood also sees the welcome return of the Chita Rivera to the Broadway stage, and the legendary actress makes the most of her limited stage time.  If her Princess Puffer doesn’t quite live up to the insanely high standard the actress has set for herself, Rivera remains the consummate professional and an utter joy to watch.

And then there’s Jim Norton.  As the Chairman and master of ceremonies of the Music Hall Royale, the veteran actor’s virtuosic performance is the highlight of the evening.  Although he initially appears to be little more than a genial guide meant to hold the audience’s hand throughout the freewheeling show, each scene allows Norton to reveal more and more of his vast reserve of talent.  The actor’s deft comic timing makes even the most groan-inducing puns seem hilarious, and the detached, slightly perturbed way in which he introduces scenes and characters only serves to add to his charm.  Norton can turn a raised eyebrow or muttered aside into comedic gold, and when a scripted mishap forces him to assume a more active role in the show-within-a-show Norton unleashes the most hilarious characterization of the night.

Like the cast, Drood’s physical production is top-notch.  William Ivey Long’s sumptuous Victorian costumes are resplendent in their beauty, utilizing a deep color palette and intricate detail work to jump off the stage.  His attention to detail permeates everything, from the perfectly tailored suit Will Chase wears for the duration of the evening down to a breathtaking gown Stephanie J. Block wears for all of thirty seconds.  Anna Louizos’ set simply and effectively evokes the show-within-a-show’s multiple locations and the English music hall the entire event occurs in (even the lobby has been given a suitable Victorian makeover).  Brian Nason’s lighting design makes both the sets and the costumes pop, and the overall result is a stage that is almost as interesting as the action taking place on it.

The Roundabout’s Broadway productions have been hit or miss for the past few seasons, but the ones that have worked have worked extremely well.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an example of a production that works, despite the subpar material’s best attempts to derail the entire endeavor.  The cast is top notch, and the fact that many of them are playing roles outside their typical wheelhouse (and succeeding brilliantly at it) adds an extra layer of enjoyment to their performances.  While it would be a mistake to come to Drood expecting high art or evening coherent storytelling, an abundance of fun and loads of laughs are virtually guaranteed.

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