Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Cooking with the Calamari Sisters
Created by singer/songwriter Rupert Holmes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood originally premiered in 1985 as one of the Public Theater's free summer series of plays in Central Park. It was so popular that it moved to Broadway that winter. Drood is an ingenious show, as Holmes took the final, unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, which focuses on young Edwin Drood and the possible suspects who want to murder him, and turned it into a musical-within-a-musical that includes the audience voting on how the story ends. This theatrical conceit makes for a multi-layered show that not only tells the story of what exactly happened to Drood but also provides some background on the actors playing the characters in the musical and features the audience voting on key decisions in the play's outcome. If Dickens hadn't died before finishing the novel the musical wouldn't be quite as much fun as it is because the audience's involvement in the last quarter of the show provides an amazing way for them to connect with the material.
The show is presented as if you are at a lively British music hall in the early 1900s, which gives the actors the opportunity to ham up the parts they play and interact with the audience. The rambunctious narrator continually interjects and interacts with the audience, and the part of Drood is played by a woman. This is known as a "trouser role," as women at that time were never allowed to wear pants unless they were on stage playing a man. This can most likely be traced back to the time of Shakespeare when men played all the parts in his plays, including the female roles.
Because the story was unfinished, pretty much every one of the cast members has a potential motive for killing Edwin Drood. So Holmes made it the audience's responsibility to vote not on only who Drood's killer is but also on which actors play other key parts in the show. With multiple suspects and several things to votes on, there are over 1,000 combinations on how the voting can go, so the last 1/4 of the show is never the same and the cast has to be prepared for every possible outcome of the vote.
Director Andrea McFeely has done an exceptional job in ensuring that both the comedy and the drama resonate. She has also found a way to have the joy that the actors are feeling wash over the footlights and out into the audience. While not every member of her cast is a gifted singer, which is a slight drawback in some of the more vocally challenging songs, they all effectively manage the dual roles they are given with fun facial expressions and exaggerated gestures that play up the humor in the show. The many large group numbers, including a dinner scene at Jasper's house that is completely sung, are directed and delivered in excellent fashion.
As the Chairman who serves as the narrator of the play that the troupe of actors he oversees is presenting, Chris Dennis is exceptionally charming and very good. Hillary Low brings a bright, joyful sensibility to the part of Alice Nutting, the actress who plays Drood, and Jared Kitch is quite effective as Drood's uncle John Jasper, the sneaky, drug-imbibing man who leads a secret life and is in love with Rosa Bud, Edwin's betrothed. AJ Marshall plays Rosa, who has some secrets of her own, with an appropriate sense of mystery beneath a demure exterior. Monserrat Himler is excellent as Princess Puffer, the madam of an opium den who has many secrets herself and connections to several of the people in Drood's life. This is Himler's first time performing in a musical and I hope it is not the last as she has a firm hand on her character, great stage presence, and a beautiful, warm and full singing voice.
Steve Morgan and Allyson Igielski play brother and sister orphans from Ceylon whom Reverend Crisparkle, played by Zackary Diepstraten, is helping to get acquainted with their new lives in the English town where Dickens' story takes place. Morgan and Igielski are hysterical in their portrayals, with Igielski exceptionally impressive with her vocal skills, diction and accent, and Morgan's wide-eyed comical expressions and gestures superbly delivered. While Diepstraten has less to do, he still manages to create a rich, warm character we can identify with. In smaller parts, Matt Snell and Danny Blankemeier are fun as, respectively, the drunken character in the play within the play and the actor who yearns for a larger part.
Shannon Perkins' rousing choreography delivers plenty of upbeat moments which add to the joy of the show. Creative elements are very good, with Mike Smyth's simple set design using large movable, painted curtains to portray the backdrops of the scenes along with a few smart set pieces. Carrie and Danie Grief's costumes are rich and intricate and perfectly in touch with the characters, the period, and the feeling of being back in the days of the British music hall. Ryan Terry's evocative lighting design is quite effective in setting the many moods of the piece, from bright, lowbrow comedy to dark mystery. Holmes' score features not only lovely ballads with soaring melodies for the play within the play but also upbeat, rousing comical numbers for the Music Hall Royale's troupe to sing, and Karli Kemper's music direction delivers some lush harmonies from the cast.
With firm direction, colorful creative aspects, and an enthusiastic cast who have a lot of fun with their parts, Tuscany Theatre Company's production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood will make you laugh and leave you feeling that the magic of the theatre is alive and well at the Tuscany Theatre.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through January 14th, 2017, with performances at the Tuscany Theatre, 861 N Higley Rd, Suite 105, Gilbert, AZ 85234. Tickets and information on upcoming productions can be found at www.tuscanytheatrecompany.com.
Director: Andrea McFeely