While Charles Dickens is inarguably one of the great writers of the English language, the mystery genre was never his forte.
Still, late in his life, he began a tale of murder, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which remained unfinished because he passed away after penning the first six installments. Although no autopsy was performed, based on the musical that Rupert Holmes adapted from the incomplete novel, it is entirely possible that Dickens died of embarrassment.
OK, maybe not, but there is awfully little to hang a whodunnit on in this yarn about the title orphan betrothed since he was young to the comely Rosa Bud, who is lusted after by Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, among others. Soon after he breaks off their engagement, Drood heads into a raging storm and is never heard from again. Agatha Christie, it is not.
But cleverly, composer-lyricist-book writer-orchestrator Holmes wrapped the novel inside a British music hall entertainment, with lots of boisterous musical numbers – albeit often only tangential to the mystery plot – and wince-inducing jokes, which even the show’s characters concede are groaners.
Even more inspired is Holmes’s audience participation scheme that has us voting on the mystery’s solution – who the murderer is – along with a few other less primal decisions. The chosen murderer gets to sing an additional song, you see, which should be reason enough to sway your vote. But, pardon my skepticism, the way the votes are tabulated – offstage, out of our earshot – the results could absolutely be rigged. In that sense, this show set in 1895 London will probably bring to mind the United States today.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s decision to revive this 1985 show is questionable, but the north county stage company elevates the material with its usual first-rate production values and multi-talented cast.
Richard B. Watson heads the company as Chairman William Cartwright, emcee, narrator and chief purveyor of those terrible jokes, as well as doddering Mayor Sapsea. Diminutive Autumn Hurlbert takes on the dual role of stage diva Alice Nutting and, in the show-within-the-show, Edwin Drood. The gender-switch is a music hall convention which allows Hurlbert to lift her voice in a female-female duet on one of the score’s most haunting numbers, “Perfect Strangers,” with Heather Botts as the alluring Rosa Bud.
There’s not much for Andrew Sellon to play as perpetually neglected Bazzard, but the performer incorporates his ventriloquism skills and somehow leaves a distinctly positive impression. The same goes for Badia Farha as opium den madam Princess Puffer, who makes the most of a rousing number, “The Garden Path to Hell.” In general, however, the score sounds like lower drawer Gilbert and Sullivan, serviceable but forgettable.
Frequent Maltz scenic designer Michael Schweikardt (Hairspray, Barnum) steeps the production in the late 19th century at London’s Music Hall Royale, where the Dickens tale plays out, aided by Andrea Hood’s period perfect costumes. And music director Caryl Fantel leads a terrific 10-piece, onstage orchestra, giving Holmes’s score a lively hearing, aided by a crisp sound design by Maltz veteran, Marty Mets.
Ultimately, though, the real mystery of Edwin Drood is how in the world it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, plus four others. Armchair sleuths should hunt the internet to see how very weak the competition was that ’85-’86 season. The cast, creative team and design crew at the Maltz do what they can to hide the show’s flimsiness, but you will probably be able to see through their levitation act.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Thursday, Dec. 19. $62-$90. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.