Charles Dickens left his novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished when he died in 1870. Over a hundred years later, Rupert Holmes took advantage of that ambiguity to create a unique musical, where the audience gets to vote on the ending of Dickens’s story. In fact, the show, done in old-school English music-hall style, finds all kinds of ways to get the audience interacting with the cast. Additionally, that music-hall, show-within-a-show format means that most of the actors end up playing at least two characters apiece: a music-hall performer and a Drood character.
Consequently, Drood presents considerable challenges for its performers, and at the Center for the Arts on Friday night, I wondered how the students of George Mason University’s School of Theater and School of Music would handle them. Not to worry! The talented cast tackled the material with endearing enthusiasm, armed with both youthful energy and the assurance of seasoned pros.
Even before the show, decked out in Laurel Dunayer’s brightly colored costumes and never once breaking character, they were out in the lobby distributing “books of clues” and instructing everyone on how to vote. Unlike most performances of Drood, where the audience votes with applause and cheers, most of the voting in this one was done by means of cell phones, a 21st-century innovation that somehow worked just fine in the late Victorian atmosphere.
It seems there’s a lot to be said for handing this show over to the younger generation, after all.
The ensemble piece offers all kinds of opportunities for the cast to shine. Rachel Harrington as Princess Puffer, the disreputable opium-seller, and Justin Sumblin as the wistful Bazzard, brought masterful comic timing and genuine warmth to their performances, and established instant rapport with the audience. Kyle Imperatore, the lively “Chairman” of the show, in the most eye-popping costume of the evening—a suit that combined enough colors and patterns for about six suits—was a great audience favorite as well. Emma Gwin as the ingénue Rosa and Dylan Toms as the dastardly Jasper were especially strong and effective singers in a cast full of good voices; they tore into their second-act duet “The Name of Love” with blood-chilling fury, not to mention great precision and control.
Wisely, Scenic Designer Clayton Austin kept the set simple, with most of the backdrops consisting of video projections cleverly designed by Autum Casey. Nicole Pradas’ can-can-influenced choreography was very good, though I found some scenes a little over-choreographed; for instance, “Both Sides of the Coin,” a patter song for Jasper and the Chairman that builds to breakneck speed, is enough of an attention-getter without lots of dancing going on in the background.
There were moments throughout the evening when it was difficult to hear the singing, either because cast members were scattered around the theater (as in the opening song, “There You Are”), or because the orchestra overpowered the singers. Conductor Dr. Dennis M. Layendecker who has an orchestra filled with excellent musicians, is generally doing a fine job with his musicians—and also gets to have a bit of fun onstage—but now and then he needs to rein them in.
Most of the time, the performers did a good job keeping the energy going, but the pace did slacken a little in some of the non-musical scenes. Even this musical farce has a few moments that need to be truly dark and dramatic, but with the exception of Rachel Harrington’s touching solo “The Garden Path to Hell,” the mood didn’t get quite as serious as it needed to be at those moments. But this was a minor problem in a highly enjoyable evening.
Ken Elston’s direction was especially strong in the big ensemble numbers, such as the first-act finale “Off to the Races.” And he’s done some wonderful work with these performers; they’re as relaxed and engaging in their roles as if they’d been playing them for years, and it’s a treat just to watch them having so much fun.
As for who the audience voted for to be Drood’s killer on Friday night—well, I don’t want to give away too much. Let’s just say, some ingénues aren’t quite as innocent as they look . . .
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues tonight, October 25, 2014 at 8 PM and ends its run tomorrow at 4 PM at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA. It then moves to the Hylton Performing Arts Center where it plays on October 31, 2014 and November 1, 2014 at 2 pm and 8 pm.
Purchase tickets online for the Center for the Arts for tonight’s and tomorrow’s 4 PM performance.
Purchase tickets online for the Hylton Performing Arts Center performances on October 31, 2014 and November 1, 2014 at 2 pm and 8 pm.
Ticket prices are: $25 for Adults and $15 for Alumni, Students, faculty, staff, seniors, and groups.
In the Moment: A Chat with the Director and Cast Members of George Mason University’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ Which Opens This Friday Night by David Siegel on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Synopsis of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Meet the characters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.