Friday, December 28, 2012

Dro-oo-od on Broadway

They are not booing, they are chanting “Drood.”  Spectators are immediately asked to join in and hold that “o” whenever the title character is mentioned on-stage.  Incorporating audience participation in the tradition of Rand’s Night of January 16th, patrons will decide who the issue of guilt, but nobody is really innocent in the Roundabout Theater Company’s randy revival of Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, now running on Broadway (promo here).

Staged as the latest production of a Victorian theater company, the first act more or less follows Dickens’ unfinished novel and previous Masterpiece and Universal adaptations.  Dro-oo-od is the entitled orphan nephew of his guardian, John Jasper, a secretly drug-addicted provincial choirmaster.  Jasper is not so furtively obsessed with Rosa Bud, who was betrothed to Dro-oo-od in their childhoods.  To deal with his ghosts, Jasper frequents the London opium den operated by the Princess Puffer, a mere old crone in most renditions, elevated in stature on-stage to accommodate a Broadway diva like Chita Rivera, or in the case of the Roundabout’s revival, exactly like Rivera.

Before long, Dro-oo-od will disappear and suspicion will fall on his newly arrived rival, Neville Landless.  However, theater company chairman William Cartwright, serving as master of ceremonies and reluctantly stepping into the role of Mayor Sapsea, will give the audience a chance to “elect” the murderer for the evening, whether their choice makes sense or not.

With its meta-play-within-a-play concept, Drood the musical is not unlike the recently hyped Anna Karenina.  Yet, the device works better here, probably because nobody takes it very seriously.  Arguably, Holmes’ gimmick was also more original when it debuted on Broadway in 1985, the same year Oliveira’s Satin Slipper was released.

In truth, Drood the musical can never harbor many pretensions, aside from expressing a bit of Dickens love, which is jolly fair enough.  It is simply a chance for the cast to unleash their inner mustache-twisting villains and vamps.  Jim Norton, the distinguished co-star of many Conor McPherson Broadway productions and his exceptional film The Eclipse, combines ham with dry wit to excellent effect as the Chairman.  The Princess Puffer is not a natural fit for Rivera, but at least it is a chance to see the Broadway superstar in her element.  Nor can the pleasure of the unapologetically colorful turns from Will Chase as the dastardly Jasper and Jessie Mueller as Landless’s femme fatale twin be denied.

Ironically, the weak link of the musical Drood are Holmes not particularly memorable tunes.  Still, “Perfect Strangers” is an appealing enough love song.  However, the second act reprise became truly high farce last Saturday, due to eccentric choices made by the audience that would take too long to explain.  (Evidently, the Devil really gets into New Yorkers during the holidays.)

Appropriately returning to Broadway during the Dickens bicentennial, the hard-working, highly likable Drood represents a fresh holiday alternative to yet another Christmas Carol.  The audience outreach is clever without becoming intrusive (unless you’re asking for it in the front row) and the performances are uniformly energetic.  Recommended for those who enjoy broad musical comedy with a literary veneer, The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs on Broadway until March 10th at the Studio 54.