Charles Dickens wrote what is probably the most popular holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, which has been adapted for the stage many times, filling theaters at this time of year.
A bit perversely, then, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has chosen to dust off his other Christmas show, 1986’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a five-time Tony Award winner including Best Musical. It opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 19.
Adaptor Rupert Holmes, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, had his work cut out for him, since Dickens died in 1870 with this novel only half completed. With no notes left behind, it is unknown whom Dickens intended to finger as Drood’s murderer, or even if a murder actually occurred.
Jennifer Werner, who will be directing the Maltz production, was drawn to the material because of its sheer entertainment value. “I love the sensibility that we’re combining the best of a Victorian English music hall and that spirit of entertainment and storytelling with all whose wonderful things of panto and vaudeville,” she says. “That all works together to give the audience a really fun night of theater.”
Because Dickens did not finish writing his final novel, Holmes decided that the audience would vote to determine who the murderer is, and therefore the person that gets to sing the final number in the show.
“I think the most interesting part of the plot is that you are introduced to these archetypal characters,” says Autumn Hurlbert, who plays Edwin Drood, a role written to be performed by a woman, in the tradition of pantos. “You get to know them very quickly and, as an audience member, you are going to decide how you feel about them and then you get to choose your own ending.”
Since the audience also votes on which two characters will be romantically linked, the total number of possible results – and number of final songs – is 55.
“They all have different songs, depending on who you have paired up,” explains Richard B. Watson, who plays The Chairman, the show’s emcee. “Everyone in the cast has to memorize a specific song according to the way the audience has decided who’s going to be the couple at the end of the show.”
The Maltz cast is considerably smaller than the troupe that first played the show in New York. “The original Drood was for a traditional Broadway cast of over 22, so it incorporated a larger ensemble,” says Werner. “This is a chamber version for 11, which means that all of our actors have to do a lot of heavy lifting. They have to sing, act, dance and play instruments. They’re not the orchestra, but we’re embracing the whole music hall festivity of it. If they put ‘juggling’ down as one of their special skills, they’re doing it in the show.”
“There are so many characters in the novel, it’s so detailed and ornate and elaborate, with all of the characters and their interactions, from all different points of view,” notes Watson. “This is really distilled, boiled down to just the necessities.”
Rehearsal time is invariably too brief at the Maltz, but particularly so for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has so many endings, all of which have to be memorized and practiced. It takes a certain type of performer to do this show well. “Like actors who do repertory or summer stock,” suggests Werner. “They have to learn a massive amount of material, and they have to think quickly on their feet, so you cast towards that. Hopefully you find actors who are facile enough to do this show.
“The show looks deceptively simple, but it’s not an easy show to do. There’s a certain alchemy with this show,” says Werner. Who gets selected as the murderer “depends on how hard the actors lobby to be chosen and how mischievous the audience wants to be.”
“I think with the actors who have been cast in this show, I think we all thrive on a little bit of unpredictability,” says Hurlbert, who sounds ready for whatever curves the audience wants to throw. “Bring it, we like a good challenge.”
“I think everyone in the show is going to be vying to be picked, adds Watson. “They’re going to want to perform their ending of the show. When the time comes, they will all be pulling out the stops, saying, ‘I’m the one you want to see tonight.’”
Most literary critics believe that Dickens intended to make John Jasper, Drood’s opium-addicted choirmaster uncle, the murderer. “For Rupert’s purposes, that’s an obvious answer,” scoffs Watson, “so we make him a red herring in our production. It’s The Chairman’s job to chastise the audience about it, ‘What would be the fun in that?’”
“But of course that is one of the possible endings,” notes Werner.
If the Maltz audience is like those who have seen this show elsewhere, they will be talking back to the characters onstage. “If someone in the back row decides to throw something out, you can’t just let it die,” says Watson. “As the emcee, you have to take it in and engage them. You have to be ready for it.”
“It’s a funny raucous evening,” says Hurlbert. “You’re not expected to come with your white gloves, sitting on your hands, quietly watching. It’s fully participative. There’s no way that you’re not going to leave in a better mood than what you came in with. And it’s only an hour and a half.”
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Dec. 3-19. $62-$90. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.