Dickens Musical ‘Edwin Drood’ Gets Fine Revival: Review

'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'
Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." The musical comedy is based on the book by Charles Dickens. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Cast with a dream team of New York theater talent, the Roundabout presents an inspired revival of Rupert Holmes’s interactive musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

The audience gets to select the mysterious killer.

Charles Dickens, now celebrating his bicentennial, died before finishing the novel that inspired the show.

Public Theater founder Joe Papp first presented the show in Central Park, in 1985, and it won five Tony Awards on its first trip to Broadway. Holmes wrote the book, the winning music-hall ditties and even the orchestrations. His knack for wordplay is evident in the propulsive opening number, “There You Are,” sung by the company:

“So lightning quick let’s all kick up a fuss!/We can but pray your trust is blind in us/So drink your fill and just unwind in us!/A warmly wicked frame of mind in us, you’ll find in us.”

It’s set in 1895 at London’s Music Hall Royale, where a second-rate troupe is performing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” The preening actors slip in and out of character, which sustains a jokey show-within-a-show feel (but undermines any hope of dramatic tension).

Luminous Set

Scott Ellis directs this version with finesse, aided by set designer Anna Louizos’s luminous hand-painted backdrops. Paul Gemignani conducts.

Will Chase (from television’s “Smash”), with pencil moustache, sideburns and shiny hair, plays the opium-smoking John Jasper, the evil choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral. Soaring soprano Betsy Wolfe (“Everyday Rapture”) plays the ingenue Rosa Bud to the hilt.

She’s engaged to Drood, a relationship that suffers from “unavoidable flatness,” perhaps because Drood’s played by London’s leading male impersonator (Stephanie J. Block).

Employing a cake of make-up and ever-arching eyebrows, Andy Karl is a nosey, hot-tempered refugee from Ceylon. Jessie Mueller, unrecognizable to those who admired her as Cinderella in Central Park’s “Into the Woods,” is his sister. Also in mix: Gregg Edelman and Peter Benson.

Notably, and maybe foremost, is 79-year-old Chita Rivera, a crowd favorite despite -- or perhaps because of -- her wavering English accent.

Dickens Dies

At the preview I attended, the audience had Rivera’s character pair off with Master Nick Cricker, played by loose-limbed 14-year-old Nicholas Barasch.

As for the central mystery, the narrator (Jim Norton) announces Dickens’ death midway through a second-act anthem and requests help in resolving Drood’s disappearance. The principal characters take the stage holding numerals, and secondary actors flood the aisles to canvas the audience.

At my preview, I and 226 others indicted Rosa Bud. (The vote tally is posted in the lobby after the show.) That prompted her to sing “Murderer’s Confession -- Rosa,” incorporating motifs from earlier songs.

It’s inordinately fun to vote in a low-stakes election for a change.

At 254 W. 54th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure

section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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