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The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Debbie Pappas as Princess Puffer and Eliza Hayes Maher as Rosa Budd.

I adore Rupert Holmes’s musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Its mischievous tone and ingenious audience participation device is matched by its clever lyrics and delightful score. The original Broadway production and an intimate local rendition back when Upstage New York performed at the Park School are highlights among my theatrical memories.

The 1985 musical is a dramatization of Charles Dickens’s unfinished final novel, told in the style of English Music Hall entertainment. Here, actors play Music Hall performers who act out the story and invite audience members to vote on the outcome. The play within a play format allowed Holmes to indulge in light comedy, to enrich the score by casting a soprano as Drood, and to add Music Hall style numbers that fall outside the plot.

I am far from the only person who has long thought that Edwin Drood would be a perfect musical for the Edwardian jewel box of the Kavinoky Theatre. The proscenium stage and charming opera boxes of that theater lend themselves to the material perfectly, as does the Anglophile taste of the Kavinoky audience.

When the idea first occurred to me, of course, I envisioned Jeanmarie Lally, whose soaring soprano and perfectly articulated diction were a phenomenon of early 1990s Buffalo theater as the ingénue; and Maggie Zindle (Lally’s fellow SUNY Fredonia musical theater graduate) as Drood—or vice versa. These were musical theater performers from the last generation to be trained before body microphones were commonplace, when clearly intelligible diction was an essential element of vocal training.

This is a style of musical performance that continues in a direct line from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to contemporary Broadway, where over-enunciation is the norm. Gilbert (the lyricist of the team) famously pleaded with singers trained on Italian opera (to whom beauty of tone was all) to make his witty words intelligible. Naturally, clarity of diction in an American theater tradition driven by Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Comden & Green, Alan Jay Lerner, Stephen Sondheim, et al. is an important commodity.

The current Kavinoky production, directed by Norman Sham, while wonderfully satisfying on many counts, does present some challenges. To begin, the cast is amplified electronically, making them audible, but they are not uniformly understandable. Frequently, words are lost in the soaring melodies, in the breakneck tempi, or in ersatz English accents. Given Dickens’s complex plot, this presents a huge obstacle, especially during act one. At intermission, many of those present were discussing their inability to understand what was going on. I found myself providing an impromptu tutorial for an assembly of strangers in the balcony.

At its best, this is a bouncy and good-hearted show that provides an occasion for actors to showcase their virtuosity. Indeed, the performance of Betty Buckley as the original Edwin Drood is the stuff of Broadway legend, and her successor in the role was none other than future Broadway diva Donna Murphy. Cleo Lane was similarly celebrated as Princess Puffer, as were George Rose as the original chairman and Howard McGillin as the original Jasper. (Drood will have its first Broadway revival this fall.)

On the plus side, Debbie Pappas is delightful (and entirely understandable) as Princess Puffer. Brian Mysliwy does a heroic job of keeping the festivities moving. Kelly Cammarata’s choreography is spirited and exciting. Kevin Kennedy does admirably as underappreciated Bazzard. Michele Marie Roberts has a lovely voice and a pleasing stage presence. Any further thoughts of mine shall remain the mystery of Anthony Chase.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues at the Kavinoky Theatre (320 Porter Avenue, 829-7668) through October 7.

Drood, In a Nutshell

The pleasures of the Kavinoky Theatre production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood are abundant, but fortune will favor the prepared participant. As at the opera, it will help to know the plot before going in. (It might actually be helpful to provide a synopsis as a program insert for this production.)

A lowbrow crew of entertainers at London’s Theatre Royale greets the audience, singing “There You Are” from various locations around the theater, and the Chairman, played with great clarity by Brian Mysliwy, explains how the outcome will be determined.

The company then begins to tell the story. Each scene and the introduction of every character provide clues to the outcome of the mystery.

Brian Riggs enters as choir master John Jasper, a respected member of Cloisterham society who reveals that he suffers from mental torment in his song, “A Man Could Go Quite Mad.” (In fact, Jasper will turn out to be a dope fiend and a sexual pervert.) He is joined by Michele Marie Roberts playing his nephew Edwin Drood. Young Drood talks about his upcoming marriage to Rosa Bud, and his plans to leave for Egypt after the wedding. Jasper is unhappy that the couple will be moving so far away. Uncle and nephew sing of their devotion to each other.

In the next scene, Rosa Budd enters, played by Eliza Hayes Maher. It is her birthday, and Jasper has composed the song “Moonfall” for her as a gift. It becomes clear that Jasper lusts for the young girl, and she is disturbed by his creepy advances.

Just as Rosa is finishing an encore of “Moonfall,” with its inappropriately explicit lyrics, Reverend Crisparkle, played by Tom Owen, enters with Neville and Helena Landless, Ceylonese twins, delightfully and precisely played by Marc Sacco and Charmagne Chi. Overcome by creepiness, Rosa faints at the end of the number, and Helena comes to her aid. Neville is very attracted to Rosa.

The scene now shifts to a London opium den operated by Princess Puffer, played by Debbie Pappas, who sings “The Wages of Sin” and reveals that sleazy but seemingly respectable Jasper is a frequent customer. During an opium-induced dream of sexual debauchery, Jasper calls out the name “Rosa Budd.” The name obviously holds important meaning to Puffer, who determines to follow Jasper.

Back in Cloisterham, the gravedigger Durdles (played by Gerry Maher) and his Deputy (played by Kurt Erb) discuss a newly completed tomb for the wife of the mayor. The Mayor is played by the Chairman.

The next day, the Landless twins meet Edwin Drood, who immediately offends Neville by revealing his plans to pave a desert highway in Egypt using stones from the pyramids. Drood is irked by Neville’s obvious attraction for Rosa Budd.

This setup establishes the basic lines of rivalry and interconnection.

Still to come, Jasper will obtain a key to the tomb of the Mayor’s wife.

Drood and Rosa Budd will break off their arranged engagement, but agree to keep the fact a secret until after Christmas.

Jasper will serve drugged wine to Edwin and Neville at his Christmas party and the embittered rivals will head out to the river with Edwin wearing Jasper’s topcoat. The next day, the torn and bloodied coat will be found by the side of the river and Edwin will have disappeared.

This disappearance is the mystery of the story. The remainder of the plot involves its resolution, which will ultimately be determined by audience vote.