The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Roundabout Theatre Company presents a pleasant Broadway revival of Rupert Holmes’ Tony Award-winning musical.

Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block in <i>The Mystery of Edwin Drood</i>
Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block in The Mystery of Edwin Drood
(© Joan Marcus)
America’s national elections may have come and gone, but the cast members of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s pleasant revival of Rupert Holmes’ 1986 Tony Award-winning musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood are still trying to get your vote.

Of course, what they’re asking the audiences at Studio 54 to decide upon aren’t issues of worldwide importance, but such pressing questions as who killed the musical’s title character, who is in disguise as a mysterious detective, and which pair of potential lovers end up together at show’s end.

Based upon an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the show’s plot involves the disappearance of young Edwin Drood (a cross-dressed Stephanie J. Block), who seems to have met his untimely demise one stormy night.

The prime suspect for the murder appears to be his uncle John Jasper (Will Chase), who covets young Ned’s intended bride, Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe). However, there are a range of other characters with secrets and hidden motivations, including opium den proprietor Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelmann), and the hot-tempered Neville Landless (Andy Karl) and Helena Landless (Jessie Mueller), twin siblings recently arrived from Ceylon.

Holmes creates a show-within-a-show conceit, which allows the cast (who play their characters as well as members of an 1895 London music hall troupe) a greater freedom to interact with the audience. It also helps explain away potentially questionable artistic decisions, like having two white actors darkening their skin tone as they portray exotic and potentially dangerous foreigners.

Chase throws himself fully into the production’s larger-than-life performance style, mining both the passion and humor of his villainous character. Block is similarly game, and the actors’ duet on “Two Kinsmen” is an early musical highlight of the show.

Rivera possesses a vibrant and earthy presence, even if the legendary actress’ vocal prowess is not what it once was. Peter Benson delights as Bazzard, a minor character in Dickens’ story that gets his chance to shine in his big number, “Never the Luck.” There’s also nice work from Robert Creighton and Nicholas Barasch as the alcoholic Durdles and the young Deputy, respectively.

Still, one can’t help but feel that the company, under Scott Ellis’ direction, is often trying way too hard, resulting in a forced quality to the show’s humor — a problem that even afflicts the usually terrific Jim Norton as the music hall’s Chairman, who narrates much of the action. Moreover, the pacing of the musical’s book scenes are sluggish at times, further dulling the impact of the two-and-a-half-hour show.

Fortunately, the musical picks up steam when the characters launch into Holmes’ varied collection of tunes – ranging from the haunting ballad “Moonfall” to the jaunty patter song “Both Sides of the Coin.” That you may leave the theater humming one of them is no mystery at all.

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