By Kay Kipling
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (and more than 20 years since I’ve seen it at the Manatee Players, where it’s currently onstage again). I’d forgotten how much fun this Rupert Holmes musical adaptation of the unfinished Charles Dickens novel can be.
But I was certainly reminded by the performance I attended last night. Technically, the show was a preview, with the official opening tonight (Thursday). But there was nothing rough or unpolished in the production, which has a whole lot going for it under the skillful direction of Scott Keys, who also choreographed.
First off, Keys and his cast seem thoroughly at home with the musical’s notion of blending the Dickens novel with Holmes’ abiding love for the British music hall, meaning that most members have two roles: the Dickens characters, and the actors or actresses playing those parts in a music hall production, led by company “chairman” Mr. William Cartwright (Walter D. Price, who strides confidently into the forefront from the first number). They’re also obviously comfortable with audience interaction, mingling with the crowd before the curtain and able to play deftly off viewers’ reactions once the action begins.
The conceit of Holmes’ musical is that the audience gets to decide what really happened to Dickens’ title character, choosing from several suspects and therefore alternate endings. Did the young and sometimes obnoxious Drood (played by actress Danae DeShazer) meet an untimely end at the hands of his rival in love (choir master John Jasper) or his unwilling betrothed (the bewitching Rosa Bud)? Perhaps it was those mysterious visitors from the Far East, Helena and Neville Landless, or the opium-supplying Princess Puffer, or even the seemingly upright The Rev. Crisparkle? Or could the perpetually drunken gravedigger Durdles or the mysteriously unfulfilled character Bazzard have played a part in his disappearance?
It’s very amusing to play along with the cast, which is talented both vocally and in terms of their acting chops. At more than 2 ½ hours running time, and with plentiful opportunities to ham it up, Drood may occasionally slip into overdoing it even given the generous parameters of the premise. But newcomers Christoff Marse, as the Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish Jasper; Tristan Martin, as the seething Neville; and Michelle M. Spears, as the seen-better-days Princess Puffer, along with returning faces DeShazer, Eliza Engle as Rosa, Jason Kimble as Bazzard, and Michele Anaya as Helena shine at displaying villainy, innocence or duplicity, as the case may be. And Price is, well, priceless as the master of ceremonies, so to speak.
The production is aided immeasurably by the Victorian-era costumes from David Covach and the scenery from BTR Productions, which takes us smoothly and convincingly from a gloomy cathedral burial yard to a train station to an opium den and beyond with no fuss. Music director Aaron Cassette and his orchestra likewise acquit themselves well on Holmes’ score, which ranges from lovely (Moonfall) to rollicking (Off to the Races) to just plain fun (Both Sides of the Coin).
Overall, The Mystery of Edwin Drood entertains heartily. It continues through Jan. 26; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.