Dickens of a Show

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The Roundabout Theatre, NYC

I was a real fan of the 1985 Broadway production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and have been eagerly looking forward to the Roundabout revival. For the most part, it did not disappoint.

Drood, of course, is based on Charles Dickens's final, unfinished novel.To tell the story onstage, composer/author Rupert Holmes has devised an ingenious conceit. The show takes place in 1895 in a British music hall, called London's Music Hall Royale. The troupe is giving a performance of its new musical production based on the Dickens novel. It allows a delightful mix of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic story along with the boisterous comedy of the British music hall. The results are highly atmospheric and great fun. Since the Dickens novel was never finished, the ending of the show is determined by audience votes on several matters, another nifty idea from Holmes, and the voting scenes really are major highlights.

For whatever reason, the first act was a little off and slightly uneven when I saw it Wednesday night; perhaps the cast was dragging slightly on the second performance the day after opening night. The book scenes, in particular, did not quite play with the needed zest. I still enjoyed it and there was much that delighted, but it fell a little short in evoking the glee I have come to expect from Drood..

But, as Act Two went on, any reservations were dispelled. The show's resolution was so deliciously funny and joyous that one couldn't help but leave Studio 54 on a high note. It was particularly nice to see an ending different from those I've seen in the past. One of the funniest elements in the concluding moments was seeing a scene between the two characters voted by the audience as the lovers, and watching seventy-nine-year-old legend Chita Rivera play that scene with fourteen-year-old Nicholas Barasch was hilarious, theatrical perfection. The show closes on a high note with Stephanie J. Block's wonderful "The Writing on the Wall."

Scott Ellis helms a grand and stylish production. Particular praise goes to William Ivey Long's colorful costumes and to the marvelous sets and painted backdrops by Anna Louizos. We used to see these kinds of sets frequently in Broadway musicals, and it is a pleasure to once again have a show with this visual grandeur.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood would never work without a strong cast, and this cast is superb. Drood requires its cast to give broad, over-the-top performances, and the Roundabout company happily obliges. While it would be hard to match George Rose's memorable, Tony-winning portrayal in the original of the Chairman, who serves as the evening's master of ceremonies, Jim Norton comes close, with impeccable comic timing and wit. Will Chase gets the chance to show his manic side and does so with relish as the villainous Jasper. Block, as always, is strong as Drood and sings gloriously; Gregg Edelman is a loopy, daffy Reverend. Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller are terrific as the Landlesses, almost stealing the show at every opportunity. Betsy Wolfe is a fine Rosa Bud, Peter Benson a totally winning Bazzard; Robert Creighton and Nicholas Barasch shine as Durdles and Deputy.

The great Chita Rivera is always a welcomed attraction on stage. It took me a while to totally warm to her Princess Puffer. I am used to Cleo Laine's rendition of "The Wages of Sin," and Ms. Rivera didn't quite seem to be totally right for Puffer. But her performance grows as the show goes on, culminating in her priceless final scene as one of the lovers. She still has a commanding stage presence and is always a delight to watch.

Of course, great credit has to go to Rupert Holmes for his book, music, and lyrics. He has provided an atmospheric, complex, and often melodic score that is a major factor in the joy and mood of the evening. "Moonlight," "Perfect Strangers," "Don't Quit While You're Ahead," and the finale, among other songs, have always been personal favorites. But I appreciate the entire score, which works so effectively within the context and idea of the show.

Exuberant, rousing, spirited, and, most important, fun, are all descriptions that appropriately describe The Mystery of Edwin Drood at its best. Roundabout has given the show a fine revival. The cast is clearly having a great time, and, as the show moves toward its sublime and satisfying conclusion, whatever that might be on any given night, so is the audience. - James Miller

The Roundabout Theatre performs at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan.


Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.