The Mystery of Edwin Drood!Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes, based on the never-completed final novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by David Andrew Snider. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kyra Fitzgerald, Sylvia Bloom, Joe Phillips, Micah Sauvageau, Zachary Barnes, Scott Renzoni, Christine Decker, Tim Garner, Erin Ouellette; photo: Stephanie Willis
"Don't quit while you're ahead."
Sara Curtis as Alice Nutting as Edwin Drood; photo: Stephanie Willis
Cloisterham, England ca. 1870. Young Edwin Drood has mysteriously disappeared after a volatile dinner party. He is presumed dead. The mystery is never solved because Charles Dickens has died. Dickens was the author of the story - his final novel, incomplete at the time of his death and with no surviving notes as to his intent. Flash forward a number of years, closer to the "gay '90s" when a troupe of British actors finds themselves stranded in America, in upstate New York, without a penny to their names and no way to return home. They have a new show in the works, based on the unfinished Dickens' book. They book themselves into the Hubbard Hall Opera House built in 1878 in Cambridge, NY and present, "for the first time ever"The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the musical, to be solved on stage that night with the help of an enthusiastic audience.
This is the premise of the new version of the well-loved Rupert Holmes musical, created for Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park festival in the Summer of 1985. Its rewritten version opened on Broadway in December that year and won several important Tony Awards, ran for two years and sparked tours and a revival in 2012. Holmes has been rewriting the show as a chamber work, suitable for small theater companies. He has excised two characters and removed the chorus, reorchestrated the score for seven players (down from 26) and given the Hubbard Hall folks the near perfect tryout rights. Hubbard Hall is located in Cambridge, NY - about 50 miles from the Berkshires.
The performers are classic British types, music hall oriented and featuring two of their native country's foremost travestie performers: women who assume men's roles. Both are bitter rivals as are the characters they portray. In this show we meet the performers first and the characters they assume afterward. Led by Chairman William Cartwright, played here with a debatably smarmy attitude by Micah Sauvageau, this English concert party prepare to bring into their fold a few Americans to flush out the cast of characters. Sauvageau's "Bill" even has to take on an important role as the actor scheduled to play him has taken to the bottle and is indisposed. Sauvageau is very convincing in the part and provides, ultimately, the perfect master of the cermonies.
So there is the framework story for the musical. Now for the plot of the "mystery" which is darker and more amusingly serious. Edwin Drood, played by the actress Alice Nutting, played here by Sara Curtis, is engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud with whom he has been raised. She is an abandoned orphan raised by Reverend Crisparkle and the nearby nuns. Edwin is also an orphan raised by his uncle John Jasper, the church choirmaster and voice teacher whose favorite pupil is Rosa Bud. Jasper secretly loves Rosa and even more secretly is a drug addict who frequents the London "parlor" or opium den of Princess Puffer. The Reverend has taken in twin orphans from faraway Ceylon, Helena and Neville Landless. Neville has also fallen in love with Rosa Bud. These are the circumstances around the mystery of Edwin Drood.
Zachary Barnes, as actor Clive Paget, plays Jasper with just the right amounts of evil and charm. He is good looking and period-sensual and he sings with gusto and clarity. Barnes' performance as player and character is often at his funniest when the actor replaces his role for a moment or two and of the company here is the best at making those quick switches.
Sylvia Bloom's character plays Helena Landless. She has a striking beauty and a surprisingly small voice which is often overwhelmed by the small music ensemble. As her darkly treacherous twin brother Neville, Erin Ouellette's Colleen O'Keefe, Ireland's chief player of pants-roles, is doubly ferocious as both Nutting's principal rival and Drood's new rival for Rosa's affections. Ouellette makes fury funny and she tips the scales over and over as the male Ceylonese. Catherine Seeley as Flo, the stage assistant to the Chairman, is certainly on top of her role, her usefulness in her character, and is also an audience-grabber. So much of this show is played from within the audience that she becomes an inspiration to the others in the stranded company.
They include Phillip Bax who plays Bazzard in the play, played here by Tim Garner. Bax is an actor who barely even gets to understudy let alone shine, but given the opportunity in the song "Never the Luck" he becomes a standout performer. Then there is the interpolated American drunk Joe Merriweather who plays Durdles in the show, played here by Scott Renzoni who is just delicious in these roles. His scene with the Chairman is a definite highlight of the proceedings.
Zachary Barnes as Clive Paget as John Jasper; photo: Stephanie Willis
Kyra Fitzgerald as Deirdre Peregrine as Rosa Bud; photo: Stephanie Willis
Rosa Bud, played by Kyra Fitzgerald, is the woman loved by three men. She sings the ballad "Moonfall" with a bittersweet tone and interpretation that perfectly expresses her emotional state in regard to John Jasper. Fitzgerald is a lush performer whose facial expressions often shout her feelings and that is a perfect mode of interpretation of character in the period in which this show is set.
Her fiance, Edwin, is played by Alice Nutting who is played by Sara Curtis and she is a delightful young man in this production. Curtis is excellent in the role giving us the young man/boy whose voice has yet to change and whose testicles are yet to fully appear. She is exuberant youth on the brink of manhood personified and this works wonderfully for both the character and the play.
Joe Phillips is a perfectuly stuffy Cedric Moncrieffe who plays a perfectly stuffy Reverend Crisparkle. He is almost the comic foil in this show and he stands up to it all with a pompous attitude and a precious soul.
One of the revelations of this production is the Princess Puffer played by Chritine Decker's character Angela Prysock. Decker sings the dark songs originally assayed by Cleo Laine with all of the dramatics of a Shakespeare monologue crossed with the blues inflection of Sarah Vaughn. When she approaches Rosa Bud with her confession she literally leads us down the "Garden Path to Hell." After her superb work last season in "The Glass Menagerie" her Puffer is a joy akin to rebirth.
One of the finest aspects of this production is the visual of this play in this space. It perfectly suits the old proscenium with its fabulous period backdrops and panels designed and coordinated by Andrea Nice. Sherry Recinella's costumes are period miracles and Chelsie McPhilimy's lighting design certainly gave us the sense of lighting in the Victorian era (helped by the thunder sheet in act one). Darcy May's choreography worked its way into parody when "A Chorus Line" got poached, but it worked nevertheless.
Director David Andrew Snider has obviously enjoyed playing with these multi-level characters in this wonderful story which pulls in the audience participation toward the end. He has given the Chairman and Flo wonderful moments with the onlookers and he has fostered 19th century movement and expression wherever possible to keep the show true to its times. This is an excellent job all the way around and well-deserving support from an appreciative local and visiting audience. This was my fourth viewing of this show since its beginnings and one of the best performance I've seen. I wish it was running longer so I could see it again.
Scott Renzoni, Sylvia Bloom, Micah Sauvageau, Christine Decker, Zachary Barnes, Tim Garner, Kyra Fitzgerald, Joe Phillips; photo: Stephanie Willis
The Mystery of Edwin Drood! plays through December 3 at Hubbard Hall, on Main Street (rte.372) in Cambridge, NY. For information or tickets go to www.hubbardhall.org or call 518-677-2495.