“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Studio 54 on Broadway
by Zander Opper
When was the last time you really had some outrageous fun at a Broadway show? Well, at the lustrous new revival of Rupert Holmes’ 1985 Tony Award winning musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” currently playing at Studio 54, such merry enjoyment is offered in spades. With a stellar cast led by the legendary Chita Rivera, “Edwin Drood” is a lark from beginning to end. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, Rupert Holmes has not only written a delightful musical, but he has found his own creative way to finish the Dickens story: about fifteen minutes into Act II, everything stops and Jim Norton, the adorable host for the evening, steps forward to proclaim that this was the point that Dickens “put his pen down and died.” But how to end the story? Holmes has actually come up with more than a half a dozen possible ways and he enlists the audience to vote on their choice of an outcome. While this will not be news for anyone who saw “Edwin Drood” in its original production, such a device can still feel newly minted and much more than just a gimmick. As the audience at the performance I attended voted, a palpable sense of joy and childlike fun filled the theatre and, if the audience had been clearly having a good time throughout the show, they were almost literally beside themselves by the conclusion. By all means, run to see “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Studio 54 to join in the merriment and to bask in the pleasures that this revival provides in abundance.
It should be noted that while “Edwin Drood” is probably best remembered as the solve-it-yourself Broadway musical, the material of the show is quite rich and proves to be something of an actor’s dream to perform in. While it can be argued that the original cast, led by George Rose, Howard McGillin, and Cleo Laine, is pretty much unmatchable (at least as heard on the splendid original cast recording), director Scott Ellis has peppered his cast with a number of delightful performers who really know how to wring every last bit of outsized comedy and drama from the material. Notably, Will Chase proves to be quite a ham as the villainous John Jasper: with a glorious singing voice and a willingness to wallow in the sinister comedy of his character, this actor does some of his best work ever (and it must be a relief for Chase to open in a hit show after his unfortunate luck with such quick flops as “Lennon” and “High Fidelity”). Stephanie J. Block stands out, as well, as Edwin Drood, belting out notes to the last row of the theatre, but also revealing sensitivity in the haunting duet, “Perfect Strangers,” with Betsy Wolfe (who is pretty much ideal in her role as Rosa). Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller shine as siblings and Gregg Edelman is his usual strong-voiced self. As noted, Jim Norton, as the narrator/host, does wonders in the role that George Rose won a Tony Award for, but everyone in this cast works at the same level.
And then there is Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer. While I missed Cleo Laine terribly in Puffer’s big Act I solo, “The Wages of Sin,” and Chita’s British accent is kind of on again/off again, by the second act, Chita steals the show. Sounding a lot like she did in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and looking wonderful in a red wig, this star’s command of the stage is unparalleled and it is truly a privilege to see her in another musical. Perhaps the only Golden Age performer who regularly keeps working, Rivera can stop the show by simply lifting her eyebrow and I will confess that I voted for her as the villain at the conclusion, simply to give her more material to perform. If for no other reason, this revival of “Edwin Drood” would be a must just to watch Chita Rivera continuing to perform her magic on the musical stage.
However, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” as stated, has quite a bit more to recommend it, with a gorgeous set design (including some eye-popping drop curtains) and delectable costumes. But the real backbone of this show is the work of Rupert Holmes, whose score is both beautiful and boisterous (and he even wrote the orchestrations, played terrifically by Paul Gemignani’s band) and whose sense of London Music Hall style feels wonderfully authentic. Of course, too, Holmes’ seemingly endless imagination in fashioning so many different possible conclusions to the musical is unparalleled by any composer and he is blessed with a game cast willing to perform any of the possible endings and truly looking like they are having the time of their lives. So, go to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” not only to vote for how the show will end, but to join in the outrageous fun that this revival abundantly offers. For tickets, please call 212-719-1300 or go to http://www.roundabouttheatre.org.