The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Despite its dark underpinnings, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood is all just for fun. The Roundabout Theatre production of Rupert Holmes' musical makes the relative lightness of its being more explicit than some by elaborating on the Victorian-revue frame of the original show, but why should something this delightful have to end in tragedy?
Holmes adapted Charles Dickens' unfinished last novel, concerning a small cathedral town with a disproportionate number of suspicious characters, as a whodunit with audience participation in the second act. Before his untimely death, Dickens established that young Edwin Drood (Stephanie J. Block, whose character within the revue is a male impersonator with a wink and a nudge) was about to marry his promised-from-birth sweetheart, Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe) over the objections of his uncle John Jasper (Will Chase), a clergyman with a double life as an opium addict.
When Drood disappears after an altercation with Neville Landless (Andy Karl), the whole town turns out to look for him, some more energetically than others. Mid-Act II, the audience votes on the identity of a mystery detective who comes to town hunting for Drood (another mystery Dickens took to his grave) and that of the real killer.
Chase, who plays the diabolical Jasper, is unfairly dogged by his credit from season one of NBC's Broadway-behind-the-scenes drama "Smash"; he's quite good here, and seems to be having fun gnawing on the scenery, particularly at the show's conclusion. (In "Smash," he was chosen to play Joe DiMaggio after being spotted in a Bruno Mars jukebox musical described as being mounted at LaMaMa downtown. It's hard to know whose dignity is the most offended by that grouping of items.) His number "A Man Could Go Quite Mad" is delivered with a little mustache twirling but his presence is, overall, reassuring.
The great Chita Rivera still is, and throws herself energetically into the part of the Princess Puffer, mistress of an opium den whose client leads her into investigation herself.
Peter Benson as Bazzard, a character underwritten by Dickens such as to play no major role in the plot, delivers a tragicomic showstopper in "Never The Luck" about the sad life of the supernumerary. (It was enough, in the performance I attended, to earn him a spot as that mystery detective who discovers Drood's true enemy, and deservedly so.)
And Block pulls off a skilled double-performance in the second act when, as the actress playing Drood, her character makes an extended huffy exit expressing her indignation at being killed off. Occasionally, however, the group numbers such as "No Good Can Come From Bad" suffered from a muddiness of sound that marred their Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque delivery of multiple verses.
And Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl's excellent performances as the Landless siblings, newly arrived from Ceylon and representing Victorian England's obsession with the colonies and exoticism, are marred a fair bit by the appearance of wearing ethnic makeup -- something that, even in jest, should not be used on stage in 2012.
Not quite wholesome but still somewhat sweet, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" dispels the notion that musicals have to strive to realism to entertain audiences on Broadway these days. (And its painted backdrops represent a welcome change from the vaguely modern scaffolding-and-pipes setups currently in vogue among set designers; thank you, Anna Louizos!) New York holidaymakers looking for entertainment beyond the standards of "The Messiah" and "Christmas Carol" will also enjoy its occasional Christmas touch and -- spoiler alert -- suggestion of resurrection for poor Drood.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" runs through March 10 at Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theater, 254 W. 54th Street. For tickets and info, please visit roundabouttheatre.org.