Following its pitch-perfect intimate staging of Broadway’s 110 In The Shade, Hollywood’s Actors Co-op returns just four months later with a visit to the 19th Century London Musical Hall in their charmingly cheeky, crowd-pleasing revival of Rupert Holmes’ 1985 Tony-winning The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.
Anyone seeing Drood for the first time will understand in an instant why it became a 600-plus-performance Broadway hit.
There’s its catchy score, expertly blending the Broadway pizzazz of Holmes’ music with the music hall bawdiness of his lyrics. There are book writer Holmes’ wonderfully Dickensian characters, this being Charles Dickens’ last—and unfortunately unfinished—work after all. There’s the clever, deliberate breaking of the third wall as music hall performers with names like Miss Deirdre Peregrine and Mr. Cedric Montcrieffe break character to offer quips and asides. (At one point, one of them tells us, “I’m sure we’ll have at least one reprise of this before we’re through,” and we do.)
Finally, there’s the participation of the audience, not only invited to join in the singing from time to time, but also depended upon to make three major plot decisions.
Indeed, with its show-within-a-show (or is that show-within-a-show-within-a-show?) format and its real-life actors playing fictional-performers playing Dickens’ own characters, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood is musical theater at its most metarrific.
We first meet ensemble members in costume design whiz Vicki Conrad’s fancy Victorian music hall garb as they wander amongst us outside the Crossley Theatre before we’ve even taken our seats inside, the Co-op’s blackbox space having been transformed by scenic designers Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer (of SETS TO GO) into the next best thing to the actual if fictional Music Hall Royale.
It’s not long before we are introduced to our host for the evening, Mr. William Cartwright, aka “Your Chairman” (Peter Allen Vogt) in the rousing show opener “There You Are,” quickly followed by the introduction of lead suspect John Jasper (Craig McEldowney) and his suitably over-the-top rendition of “A Man Could Go Quite Mad,” a state into which a combination of opium and unrequited love for budding sweet young Rosa Bud (Eva Abramian) has sent the bug-eyed, split-personalitied John perhaps past the point of no return.
Dickens’ novel must surely have had a plot that could be followed, and so too must Holmes’ book (though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it is), however this hardly matters given what a fine time is being had by all thanks to an abundance of memorable performances, hummable songs, and laughs galore.
Other colorful characters include siblings Helena (Selah Victor) and Neville Landless (Brandon Parrish), born in England but raised in exotic Ceylon, their “geographically untraceable” accents kept deliberately ambiguous so as not to over-offend any particular nationality or ethnic group.
There’s also bawdy, busty Princess Puffer (Gina D’Acciaro), aka the Queen Mother of the Red Light District and madam of John Jasper’s favorite opium den; dotty old Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Tim Hodgin); and gravedigger Durdles (Greg Baldwin), every bit as funny as the name Dickens gave him.
Last (and pitiably least) is Crisparkle’s hapless assistant Bazzard (Isaac Wade), portrayed by Music Hall Royale performer “Phillip Bax,” who in one amusing twist steps out of his play-within-a-play character to warble “Never the Luck,” an actor’s lament about always being relegated to minor roles.
Somewhere along the way, Edwin Drood—played by “Miss Alice Nutting” (Catherine Gray), improbably the foremost male impersonator in London—gets murdered … or perhaps not.
An Act One finale having absolutely nothing to do with Dickens’ Mystery Of Edwin Drood features the entire cast joining voices in a rousing rendition of “Off To The Races,” leaving the audience to ponder during “the interval” who might have committed the crime, after which Act Two opens with yet another “off-topic” number, the patriotic and word-play-filled “England Reigns.” Then, midway through Act Two, a buoyant “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” ends suddenly mid-song at precisely the moment “when Dickens laid down his pen forever.”
Doubtless one of the biggest reasons for The Mystery Of Edwin Drood’s Broadway and post-Broadway success are its trio of audience participation sequences, during one of which we are invited to vote by applause for which character we feel is impersonating the improbably male detective Dick Datchery, and during another (also by applause) to select which two characters should be united in a celebration of opposite-sex love.
Most importantly, cast members dispatched to different sections of the audience tally show-of-hand votes to determine the killer out of suspects Bazzard, Crisparkle, Durdles, Helena, Jasper, Neville, Puffer, or Rosa (minus whoever has been chosen as Datchery), all of which can lead to 120 (or 400, or who really knows how many) possible variations of the show. In other words, any one of eight cast members may end up singing “Out on a Limerick,” depending on who is voted the “winner” by the audience, the reprise of “Perfect Strangers” may be sung by a dozen or more possible duos, and finally, there are eight different “Murderer’s Confessions,” depending on whom the audience chooses.
Though The Mystery Of Edwin Drood is hardly the “as vulgar and uncivilized as legally possible” musicale promised by The Chairman in his opening remarks, it is a bit racier than what you might expect from Hollywood’s Christian-based Actors Co-op. There’s a suggestion that some of its female musical hall performers might work extra hard for the money, opium is the evening’s drug of choice, and if the word “shit” bothers you, you’ll have to close your ears a few times. Still, Drood is hardly racier than PG-13 at its most PG, so leave any prudishness at home and simply enjoy.
It helps immensely to have the Co-op’s very own Stephen Van Dorn doing his flairful best in the director’s chair (and stepping into the role of John Jasper beginning next week) and to have choreographer Julie Hall getting her cast to kicking up their heels in true British Musical Hall fashion.
As for the ensemble, they don’t come any more appetizingly pizzazzy and panache-y than the gorgeous-voiced Abramian, the charmingly diverting Baldwin, the power-piped D’Acciaro, the peppy plucky Gray, the mesmerizingly mad McEldowney, and the delightfully droll Hodgin, with special snaps to Parrish’s and Victor’s outrageously over-the-top Celyonese siblings and the irresistible Wade giving silent movie greats like Keaton and Laurel a run for their money. As for Vogt, though his accent is the cast’s most come-and-go, he proves himself a master of the ad-lib, a talent sure to make each Drood performance unique.
Supporting all of the above are the tiptop triple-threat team of Emily Armstrong, E.K Dagenfield, Lucas Moore, Michelle Parrish, Jonathan Sims, and Lauren Thompson in assorted crisply captured cameos and the apparently invisible Frederick Wyatt as Mr. James Hitchens and Mayor Thomas Sapsea.
Musical director Jake Anthony gets highest marks for a) the company’s vocal harmonies, b) conducting the production’s live orchestra, c) playing keyboard alongside Tris Beezley (percussion), Erick Jovel (trumpet), Xander Lott (bass), and John Tegmeyer (woodwinds), and d) essaying the role of Mr. Thomas Purcell, maestro of The Music Hall Royale Orchestra.
Mark Svastics lights the Music Hall Royale to perfection, sound designer Warren Davis has come up with a bevy of effects to enhance both humor and suspense, hair and makeup designer Krys Fehervari transforms 21st-century cast members into 19th-century Dickensian music hallers, and property designer Nicole Read’s attention to period detail merits kudos as does dialect coach Adam Michael Rose’s attention to accents.
Phil Tyler is stage manager and Lydia Soto assistant stage manager. Rory Patterson is production manager.
The Mystery Of Edwin Drood is produced by Kimi Walker. Tannis Hanson is artistic chairperson.
It’s been seven years since Angelinos have been gifted with a major 99-seat-plan production of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, and with its recent Broadway revival having scored five 2012 Tony nominations (including Best Musical), interest in its current incarnation at Actors Co-op should be high indeed.
Given what a splendid production this is, there should be no mystery about the enthusiastic audience cheers it inspires.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
September 20, 2014
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly