Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Zeke Dolezalik.
Some musicals are romantic. Some tell historical tales. Some, through their drama, comedy, song, and dance, make a greater point about the world we live in. And some…well, some are just for silliness and fun. This latter category is perfectly exemplified by Rupert Holmes’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In crafting a musical from an incomplete murder mystery, Holmes (whose catalog of silliness includes “The Pina Colada Song”) decided to allow the audience to determine who the killer is, thus engendering an outrageously funny, audience-participatory musical that takes absolutely nothing seriously and is all the better for it. Blank Theatre Company’s revival of the show, now playing at The Edge Theatre, is populated by a group of strong-voiced actors—coached by music director Aaron Kaplan—who lean deeply into all of the absurdity Holmes throws at them and have a grand time all night long, guaranteeing their audience a wonderful time as well.
The play is set not in the Cloisterham of Dickens’ novel but in a late-19th Century music hall, the kind where regular cast members, having been introduced, pause to mug to the audience, who know they should hiss and boo the villain. Here, the nearly threadbare stage serves as that music hall and the entire cast does double duty, playing both the characters in the novel and the company actors who portray them. The company is led by its Chairman (Dustin Rothbart), who narrates the show for us and introduces the crowd’s favorite actors as they enter the play. Rothbart’s somewhat reserved performance could be bolder, but he seems content to provide an anchor that the story keeps returning to.
Other cast members, portraying their in-story characters, seem encouraged by director Danny Kapinos to take these parts to extremes. The central figure of Edwin Drood, as well as “guest actress” Alice Nutting, who is generally disliked by the music hall regulars for being a diva, is portrayed by Maisie Rose, who does an excellent job of making Drood equally unlikable. The privileged young man plans to “save” Egypt by building a causeway, using stones from the pyramids to pave the way. He also takes an instant dislike to a displaced man from India, Neville Landless (Nathan Karnik), who has taken a shine to Edwin’s erstwhile fiancée Rosa Bud (the beautiful-voiced Phoebe Moore), for no clear reason other than, perhaps, the brown of his skin. No wonder there is a wealth of candidates for his potential killer! Rose also appears as a farcically disguised second-act detective (though the Chairman assures us that we are not, therefore, to believe that the mysterious man is Edwin).
More notably dark is the character of John Jasper (Chase Heinemann), Rosa’s music tutor who also (but more secretly) yearns for her hand (and also spends considerable time in the London opium den run by the Princess Puffer (Katherine Dalin, whose several numbers here allow her to show us more sides of her character than perhaps anyone else). Jasper’s veiled hatred for his nephew Drood, who has been betrothed to the prize he desires since birth, seethes within him despite openly declaring the men to be “two kinsmen, more than brothers.” The ballad he composes for Rosa (“Moonfall”) is so haunting and its overtones so sexual that the young girl breaks down while trying to sing it, and Moore shows her to be equally disgusted and terrified at this confirmation of all she has feared about her “music master.” All of these sources of tension come out in a song called “No Good Can Come From Bad,” in which the main characters each sing of their deepening concerns…just before Edwin turns up missing and, presumably, dead.
One of the great tricks of Holmes’ script is the way that this tension is so often simply jettisoned as we watch the music hall actors just having a good time. Heinemann and Rothbart share a wonderfully entertaining duet about the confusion each feels about their characters in “Both Sides of the Coin.” The start of the show (“There You Are”) sets this dynamic up as the Chairman picks various cast members out of the audience to sing comic introductions. Later, the entire company joins together for its signature tune, “Off to the Races,” despite that song having nothing to do with the show at hand. (They wedge it in anyway.)
Add to all of this a few minor characters, coincidences, and subplots and you have the essence of a Dickens novel. Among these are the Reverend Crisparkle (Bob Sanders), who was once in love with Rosa’s long-deceased mother; Helena Landless (Simran Bal), Neville’s twin sister who can’t hold back her brother’s quick temper; the perennially under-appreciated Bazzard (Brian Warner, who gets a song to himself so that his character can complain about his rotten casting luck); the always-drinking Durdles (Aaron Mann) and his protege, Deputy (Bryce Ancil); and townspeople portrayed by Alexandra Alontaga, Grace Bobber, and Sophie Vitello.
Leo Finan (piano) and Declyn Ryan (bass) provide all of the music, and Liz Cooper’s lights help frame the many asides and comically highlighted phrases throughout the play. Britta Lynn Schlicht’s fun choreography makes the songs even more amusing and enjoyable than Holmes’ lyrics do on their own. As to the audience participation part, Holmes wrote different endings for each of the many possible murderers, mystery detectives, and lovers who get paired at the end, and you really do get to vote for your personal favorites, thereby determining how it all comes out. This is one musical in which the audience is encouraged to have as much fun as the actors, and Kapinos’ very talented cast clearly is having a great time. So will you.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a Blank Theatre Company production now playing at The Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 100 minutes; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.