The members of the Musical Theatre Guild are musical theater magicians.  How
else could they create musical theater magic in just 25 hours of rehearsal time? 
They’ve done it again, with a delightful, tuneful (book in hand and sans sets but
otherwise pretty much fully staged) production of Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of
Edwin Drood (based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel).  Their first of two
performances (at the Alex in Glendale last Monday) happened to coincide with
the mammoth Chess benefit, but I was able to catch yesterday’s reprise
performance at the much more intimate Janet & Ray Scherr Forum in Thousand
Oaks, which was a treat for the ears and the eyes.

Holmes’ conceit is that a Victorian era British music hall troupe (at “The Music
Hall Royale”) are presenting their own version of Drood, and that we, the
audience, will vote on the identity of the murderers.  Thus, there are seven
different confession songs possible, and because there are three instances of
audience voting, there are supposedly “120 endings” to the show.

We first meet the members of the company as they wander amongst us before
the curtain rises, introducing themselves, signing autographs, etc.  They then join
“Mr. William Cartwright, Your Chairman” (the inimitable Roy Leake, Jr.) in a
rousing opening number There You Are, quickly followed by the introduction of
lead suspect John Jasper (Dan Callaway) who sings a suitably over-the-top A
Man Could Go Quite Mad.  Callaway (Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings),
happily on the mend from a recent injury, sings like an angel and emotes like a
devil, his hysterical outbursts and hilarious overreactions a delight.

I’m sure Dickens novel had a plot which you could follow, and so I’m sure does
Holmes’ book, but a) I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it was and b) it doesn’t
really matter. What does matter are the performances, and the songs, and the
many laughs which made up MTG’s production of Drood.

Eydie Alyson had fun playing the ingénue, Rosa Budd, and lent her soaring
soprano to the exquisite Moonfall. Jennifer Gordon was clearly having a ball
with the role of Helena Landless, born in England but raised (and clothed) in
India. Her “Indian poses” were outrageously over the top and I (and the
audience) loved every one of them. Her equally landless brother Neville was
brought to life by the always wonderful William Martinez.  Like Gordon, Martinez’s
accent was deliciously silly and “geographically untraceable.”

Mary Van Arsdel was the bawdy Princess Puffer, Opium Den owner and “Queen
Mother of the Red Light District.” Wearing appropriately heavy face paint and
singing in her rich warm voice, Van Arsdel was very funny indeed in a high-on-
opium sequence complete with satyr (sexy Nathaniel Flatt). Michael Kostroff got
many laughs as the dotty old the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle, and in one amusing
twist, perennial favorite Steven Hack (as music hall performer Phillip Box) stepped
out of his play-within-a-play character Buzzard, to sing Never the Luck, Box’s
complaint about always being relegated to minor roles. 

Other fine MTG and guest artist Drood cast members included Glenn Shiroma,
Anne Fraser Thomas, Heather Provost, and the always excellent Joe Hart as
Durdles (just as funny as the name Dickens gave him.)

Somewhere along the way, Edwin Drood (played by discovery Melissa Lyons as
Miss Alice Nutting, improbably the foremost male impersonator in London) got
murdered, or did he? And then, in an Act 1 finale which had absolutely nothing
to do with “The Mystery,” the entire cast joined in a rousing rendition of Off to
the Races, and the audience was left to ponder who might have committed
the crime.

Act 2 began with yet another “off topic” number, the patriotic and full of word
play England Reigns (Rains). “Miss Alice Nutting,” whose Act 1 character of
Drood had been disposed of, returned (her “contract” having stipulated
participation in both acts) as an equally improbably male detective Dick
Datchery, “incognito” in a beard three times the size of her face. The entire
company joined in a rousing Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead, which ended
suddenly mid-song at precisely the moment “when Dickens laid down his pen
forever.”  As this was an “on book” production, cast members had fun searching
for the missing page in their scripts.

Soon after came the audience participation, voting by applause for who should
take over Datchery’s role (“Miss Nutting” having made a precipitous exit), and
again (also by applause) as to which male character should be romantically
united with the “no-longer-a-spring-chicken” Princess Puffer.  (It seems that
audiences traditionally delight in matching the aging Puffer with the cast’s
youngest member, here portrayed exuberantly by Andy Dubick.  Voting for the
identity of Drood’s murderer was by show of hands, cast members having been
dispatched to different sections of the audience to count the voted. 
Unfortunately, through miscommunication of assignments, the performer closest
to my section kept refusing to count our votes, insisting that someone else was
doing that, when no one was. Fortunately, the audience picked my personal
fave, Helena Landless, as the killer, doubtless due to Jennifer Gordon’s delicious
scenery chewing.

The wonder of MTG’s productions is that the performers manage in short order
to make the audience forget that they’re still “on book.”  Though scripts are
dropped for most musical numbers, they are held in all the dialog sequences, but
almost imperceptibly, so fully developed are the actors’ performances. There is
some furniture (mostly chairs) on stage, and what there is is ingeniously put to
use. A single dining table, when overturned, became pillars in a opium den
against which the opium fiends lounged, and later, turned vertically on its side,
became a cemetery crypt. There is no stinting on costumes, however, and Shon
LeBlanc once again proved himself a master of period attire. 

Glendale’s 8 piece onstage orchestra is halved for Thousand Oaks
performances, but the two keyboards, bass, and drums provided more than
adequate accompaniment for Holmes’ tuneful melodies, led by musical director
Tom Griffith.  

Not only do the casts of MTG productions have to act and sing, they also must
dance for their supper (remember, it’s with a maximum 25 hours of rehearsal,
mandated by Actors’ Equity), and Brian Paul Mendoza contributed a number of
British Music Hall style numbers.  

Finally all of this must be put together by a talented director, not intimidated by
a challenge, and able to bring out the best in his large cast of performers. Just
such a director is the veteran Calvin Remsberg, who deserves high marks for his
work here.

MTG productions are here and gone in the wink of an eye. The next one is Irving
Berlin and Moss Hart’s As Thousands Cheer, which will have one performance
only, at the Alex in Glendale on November 19th.  If Drood and the many
marvelous MTG productions which preceded it are any indication, this is one
show musical theater aficionados will not want to miss!

Janet and Roy Scherr Forum, Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
September 23, 2007

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