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The Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Rupert Holmes

CHOKE'S ON YOU: Stephen Antonsen lends a hand to Shannon Wollman.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 1/25/2006

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Rupert Holmes

At Vagabond Players through Feb. 12

Charles Dickens’ original, unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a startlingly bleak and cynical tale of lecherous desire between a choirmaster and his nephew’s betrothed—which is why Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical recasting is a little off. Holmes mixes two very different, if very British, comic types: Dickens’ macabre satire and Gilbert and Sullivan’s witty whimsy. In the hands of a less-than-perfect company this volatile concoction feels downright strange—such as with the Vagabond Players’ production. The usually spot-on company stumbles with poor comic timing, fumbling monologues, and shakily cast musical numbers insufficiently accompanied by piano.

The play-within-a-play opens with cast introductions from Mr. William Cartwright (B. Thomas Rinaldi), chairman of the Music Hall Royale, whose troupe presents Dickens’ tale. It includes the manic, opium-addicted choirmaster John Jasper (Stephen Antonsen), his nephew Edwin Drood (Shannon Wollman), and Drood’s fiancée, Rosa Bud (Beth Weber). Soon the Rev. Crisparkle (John Suchy) arrives with twins from Ceylon, Neville (Brent Bell) and Helena Landless (Tammy Crisp). Neville’s obvious attraction to Rosa irks Drood, and the first act ends at a Christmas dinner party hosted by Jasper, where he serves “very potent wine.”

Drood disappears with Act 2, leaving the last person who saw him, Neville, the most obvious suspect. In the investigation that ensues, Jasper’s opium dealer, the clever Princess Puffer (Liz Boyer Hunnicutt), arrives from London with mysterious detective Dick Datchery (Wollman). After only a few scenes, the plot abruptly stops; here is where Dickens laid down his pen and died in 1870. Shifting back to the Music Hall Royale, each actor/character is presented as a suspect in Drood’s murder. The (real) audience then votes on who the killer really is, and the cast performs one of four alternate endings, depending on which potential murderer garners the most votes.

Vagabonds’ problem is that no one in the cast appeared very comfortable with his or her part. Rinaldi’s emcee monologues were full of “ums” and poorly timed, flat jokes. Comic lines, such as when a waiter interrupts the dinner party to announce that “the goose is cooked,” are hurriedly delivered and draw few, if any, laughs. Bell’s hammy facial expressions and pauses fall out of step with the cast’s complete lack of subtlety. And it was extremely bothersome that some characters, such as cockney knucklehead Durdles (Roger Schulman), spoke with superb English accents, while others didn’t at all. The musical numbers were equally mediocre, especially the big kick-line pieces, which sounded empty and unexciting without a pit orchestra.

The night’s most redeeming performances came from Wollman’s exuberant Drood and Hunnicutt’s irreverent Princess Puffer. But those two weren’t enough to save a production that lost nearly all of its humor on its befuddled audience. (Robert Whelan)

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