Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Aled Davies leads the troupe in Edwin Drood)

DIY is very big these days, what with the recession inspiring or forcing all of us to save money and do things for ourselves. While do-it-yourself may work out fairly well for minor faucet repairs and income tax preparation (hey, it’s a snap when you have no income), it might be a dicey prospect when it comes to writing the ending of a musical.

But that is one of the interesting aspects of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Written top to bottom by Rupert Holmes—yes, the guy who wrote the aggravatingly memorable Escape (The Pina Colada Song)—Drood is based on Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished novel. And the audience is called upon to help the actors finish the story at the point Dickens had laid down his pen and, after a devastating stroke, began his dirt nap.

This makes sense in context, since in this telling the Drood play is being mounted by a Victorian music hall troupe that is eager to please the audience, no matter what. This is a motley crew whose dancers double as ladies of pleasure and whose master of ceremonies, the redoubtable Mr. William Cartwright, pauses the action of the play to introduce popular actors as they appear on stage and toss off terrible jokes (“The church bell won’t ring tonight, because the vicar’s got the clapper!”). The play structure results in every GLTF actor playing two parts: the actor in the troupe along with his or her assigned role in the mystery.

As for the mystery itself, Edwin Drood, played by the English troupe’s famed male impersonator Miss Alice Nutting, is engaged to sweet song thrush Rosa Bud. But the swarthy and villainous John Jasper, Rosa’s music master, has designs on Rosa. And so does Neville Landless, an immigrant from Ceylon who has landed in England along with his exotic sister Helena.

Along the way, we meet the Princess Puffer, doyenne of an opium den which Jasper patronizes and where some clues are dropped about the imminent disappearance of Drood. We know these are clues because Cartwright stops the action and helpfully points them out.

As directed by Victoria Bussert, and under the astute musical direction of Matthew Webb, this is a lively and engaging free-for-all, and the GLTF cast handles it with an abundance of cheerful, tongue-in-cheek exuberance. Utilizing precise timing for takes and double takes, and having fun with the cheesy effects the troupe employs (an arm can be seen throwing fake snow into an open doorway, and the actors wave their own coats and gowns to suggest a blast of wind), the production is spirited throughout.

In the linchpin role of Cartwright, Aled Davies maintains firm control of the sometimes anarchic proceedings, and milks his various asides for all the laughter possible. As Jasper, Jonas Cohen has an appropriate dark and brooding look, and enough of a singing voice to carry his tunes. His fast-paced duet with Cartwright, “Both Sides of the Coin,” is a show highlight.

Sara M. Bruner is swaggering and confident as Drood (although her hissy fit as Alice Nutting could stand a bit more attitude), while Emily Leonard As Rosa trills nicely in her solo “Moonfall.” Other standouts include Ian Gould, who plays frustrated stand-in Mr. Phillip Bax, and Eduaedo Placer, whose Cheshire grin almost swallows his face as the volatile Neville Landless.

The excellent actor Laura Perrotta does what she can with Princess Puffer, but the role really requires a woman with more physical and vocal heft. And although Matthew Wright holds his own as Reverend Crisparkle (Neville and Helena’s sponsor), one wonders what hilarity might have ensued had GLTF stalwart David Anthony Smith been in the role.

In all, Drood is light as fluff and thoroughly enjoyable. And we assume this will hold true no matter which ending your audience votes for.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Through November 1 at the Great Lakes
Theater Festival, 2067 E. 14th Street,

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