NOTE: I went to a play last night. Didn’t realize I would be in it. What fun!
That will be your reaction too when you see The Mystery of Edwin Drood now playing through February 4 on Riverside Theatre’s Waxlax Stage. The play is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, unfinished because he died unexpectedly and inconveniently. No really, he died without revealing the murderer, assuming there was a murder. That is why you must see this show. The five Tony Awards-winning stage play, in a clever display of democratic governance, allows the audience to decide how it ends.
Set in a Victorian English music hall and pub (named the Music Hall Royale), The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a play within a play and the audience is the music hall’s audience. Well, at least it seems that way, because you sit at cabaret tables and the cast comes by to visit with you before and during the show. And to “immerse” you into your role, the pub serves you drinks throughout the performance.
Comedy is not a term usually associated with Dickens, so Rupert Holmes, who created this stage version of the original novel, transformed it into a musical comedy by creating the 1895-era music hall and having real life actors portraying 1895-era actors who are playing the Dickens characters in his novel. An interesting twist (sorry, Oliver). Thus the real life audience portrays an 1895-era audience, but without costumes and fake English accents – except for the couple at our table who were actually English.
To get things started, “The Chairman,” played by Warren Kelley, acts as interlocutor, narrating the action and eventually standing in for one of the characters who didn’t show up for his music hall role.
So, getting to the show’s characters and the actors who portray them, the role of Edwin Drood is played by – a further twist – a woman (a music hall tradition). She/he is performed by Miss Alice Nutting, also a fictional character played by the very real and very talented Anne Brummel. Are you confused? Just keep repeating: it is only a play, it is only a play….
The fact that Drood’s name is in the title along with the word “mystery,” you would presume he will not live through the entire performance. You presume correctly. He is betrothed to the fetching, 18-year old Rosa Bud (Rachel Ferrera), whose name throughout the performance reminded me of an Italian Orson Welles repeating that key line about a sleigh in Citizen Kane. But maybe that resulted from three glasses of Malbec I drank.
I digress. Now let’s review who might have committed the crime. Our primary suspect is an opium-addicted music teacher, John Jasper, played by Peter Saide. He actually plays two roles, normal and over-the-top psycho, often both in the same line of dialogue. He is a bit too passionate about his student, Rosa Bud, a problem because her betrothed, Drood, is his nephew and Rosa fears his intentions.
Other key characters/suspects are twin siblings just returned from the enchanting land of Ceylon, now known as the molten core of spicy food, Sri Lanka. The brother, Neville Landless (played by Brian Krinsky), also has the hots for Rosa Bud, setting up a rivalry with cokehead John Jasper, but, curiously, not with Edwin Drood….hmmmmm.
His sister, Helena Landless (Claire Neumann), plays something of a mystic, mainly because of the way she speaks and slinks around the stage.
Some of the less obvious suspects included Reverend Mr. Crisparkle, played by John Paul Almon. He seems like a harmless source of comfort to Rosa Bud, who has known him all her life. We find out soon enough why he has earned the title, “suspect.”
Princess Puffer (Sally Mayes) runs a London opium den where John Jasper is a regular. He cries out Rosa Bud’s name in one of his opioid stupors and Puffer takes note. Does that make her a suspect?
The Chairman eventually steps into his role as Mayor Sapsea, replacing an actor who didn’t show up. His assistant, the drunken stonemason, Durdles (Norman Large), provides many laughs before and during the performance, especially when he fumbles a sheet of aluminum he shakes offstage to create the sound of thunder. I am laughing as I write this.
One character who is seen but not heard through most of the performance is Bazzard (Andrew Sellon), but he gets to perform musically and as an important part of the story later on. I asked him before the show as he mingled with us if his name was supposed to be “Buzzard.” He said it was, but they decided that was for the birds, hence Bazzard.
Being a skeptical chap (My God, I am beginning to sound like the actors pretending to be English!), I thought at first there was no way such a well staged, well acted, beautifully sung and hilariously funny stage play could throw caution to the wind and improvise the most important final act. I was wrong. Then I thought they must have rehearsed every potential ending, or wrote the ending so obvious that everyone would choose the same murderer. But upon leaving the theater, a chalk board was set up in the lobby tallying how many votes for each potential suspect. In this case the number one choice received one vote more than the number two choice. So if I gave away the ending it would serve no purpose.
I was exhausted by the end of the show. I’ve never worked so hard. And I was just in the audience!
Seriously, (for the first time in this review), if you want to have a thoroughly enjoyable evening of entertainment, you MUST see the Mystery of Edwin Drood before February 4. Call the Riverside Theatre ticket office at (772) 231-6990 or go to their website at http://www.riversidetheatre.com.