Story: The Repertory Company of the Music Hall Royale invites you to its production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in this year of our Lord 1892 in the city of London, the center of her majesty Queen Victoria’s British empire.
Being the conclusion of Mr. Charles Dickens’ last and unfinished novel of the same title, The Mystery of Edwin Drood asks us, the audience, to concoct a proper conclusion for Mr. Dickens’ tale of young Drood, betrothed at birth to Miss Rosa Bud. In these daring times, however, Edwin and Rosa have decided that they will forsake that bond arranged by their families because they aren’t really in love. Such a strange concept.
Rosa is lusted after by her music teacher, John Jasper, who in turn is Edwin’s uncle. The kindly Rev. Crisparkle once loved Rosa’s mother, and the odd Princess Puffer, queen of an opium den, seems to have some connection as well. And then there are the Ceylonese siblings, Helena and Neville Landless, who bring both the charm and mystery of the Orient.
When Edwin disappears one stormy Christmas Eve, suspicion is cast on all of these nebulous characters, each of whom is portrayed by a working member of the Music Hall Royale’s Repertory Company, all introduced to us by its genial chairman, Mr. William Cartwright. The cast is a motley bunch, the story is sinister and the outcome is left to the audience. What could possibly go wrong?
Highlights: Stray Dog Theatre has revived Rupert Holmes’ multiple Tony Award-winning musical from 1985 with a clever, ingratiating production that is filled with verve and panache and quite a bit of lively music to boot. Making the most of the Tower Grove Abbey venue’s intimate confines, director Justin Been opens up the theater to limitless possibilities with an exuberant cast whose infectious joy permeates the audience.
Other Info: Holmes and his creative cohorts collected five Tony Awards, including best musical, musical score, lyrics and book, all inspired by Dickens’ incomplete tome as well as the English tradition of music hall extravaganzas. Everyone is in on this upbeat, rousing Stray Dog rendition, including Cathy Altholz, whose whimsical program design gets one in the mood for a ripping yarn melodiously told by Been’s intrepid cast and combo.
Gerry Love is a most delightful Chairman, regaling one and all with intricate details not only about the story but also about his free-spirited bunch of blokes who engage in all sorts of tomfoolery while acting out Mr. Dickens’ tale and our own denouement. In handsome tails and top hat, our Chairman as portrayed by Love is a dapper dude focused on the audience’s good cheer, and not above donning a costume when required to fill in for a wayward thespian.
Michael Juncal serves ably as the amiable and dutiful stage manager, James Throttle. As for the cast of the show-within-a-show, noted male impersonator Alice Nutting, in the guise of our stoic title character, is played with proper stiff upper lip by Heather Matthews. Her gentlemanly Edwin pairs off in a romantic duet or two with the fair Rosa Bud, portrayed touchingly by the company’s Deirdre Peregrine as essayed by Stray Dog’s capable Eileen Engel.
Engel fits quite smoothly into the industrious mode of this production of a production, as she is responsible for the grand and glorious costumes adorning these Victorian folks, whether as the players or the characters.
They roam across Rob Lippert’s inventive scenic design, which thrusts a platform of the stage into the middle of the audience for sundry dance numbers and appeals made directly to the viewers. The main stage is richly decorated with props ranging from the bawdy to the baronial courtesy of designers Gary Bell, Justin Been and Jay Hall.
Somehow, Been and efficient choreographer Zachary Stefaniak maneuver nearly 20 players around and under the cozy confines of the Tower Grove stage, which Lippert amplifies with a two-tier set that also allows room for the Music Hall Royale Band, led by maestro Chris Petersen. Said combo includes violinist Steve Frisbee, trumpeter A.J. Lane, drummer/percussionist Bob McMahon, trombonist Will Reichert, Harrison Rich on reeds and M. Joshua Ryan on acoustic bass.
Since the audience votes three different times -- on the real identity of sleuth Dick Datchery, the killer of Edwin Drood (if he died) and the two characters who embrace romance for the musical’s ‘happy ending’ -- the cast is left with exhaustive possibilities in the second act. No matter. They are up for the challenges, as evidenced on opening night.
Others in the vivacious ensemble include Lavonne Byers as the bawdy Princess Puffer, Stefaniak as the too-obvious villain Jasper (a true Dickensian ploy), Kimberly Still as the pragmatic Helena Landless, Kelvin Urday as her mentally slower sibling Neville and Patrick Kelly as the lovelorn Rev. Crisparkle.
Eric Woelbling is a hoot as the gin-swilling gravedigger Durdles, assisted by Kevin Connelly as his dutiful son, and Michael Wells has a grand time as the extraneous Bazzard, who may or may not have more to do beyond his limited role. The energetic ensemble is comprised of Sara Rae Womack, Angela Bubash, Stefanie Kluba, Kevin O’Brien, Mike Hodges, Michael Baird and Brendan Ochs.
Although it drags a tad toward the end of each lengthy act, Been keeps the pace at a right proper jaunt most of the time. The cast gets the show going with the grand and glorious number, There You Are, and keeps it all humming pleasantly along.
Pay a visit to the Tower Grove Abbey and try your hand at deciphering The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Musical: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: April 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb