Theater Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charlotte Grey, staff writer

Mason’s School of Theater and School of Music’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” gave an exuberant opening performance this past weekend at the Center for the Arts.  Director Ken Elston, the cast and the crew delighted audiences with the entertainment and extravagance one would expect from a popular Broadway musical, and the audience’s direct involvement in the show created a night of great fun for all.

Based on the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, Rupert Holmes created this musical rendition with the idea of allowing the audience to vote how the show will progress, and ultimately conclude.  In doing so, Holmes devised a play-within-a-play, set in London in 1892 at The Music Hall Royale, where its company of players performs their melodramatic production of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”  Extending from this premise, the players continuously engage with the audience throughout the evening and appeal for help to devise an ending for the play.

While the second act started and finished with a bang, the first struggled to gain momentum.  After the first large musical number, “There You Are,” the pacing of the first act slowly unfolded.

Additionally, the dancing girls and constant crossover between one reality and the other enveloped the plot, leaving the audience with the task of playing catch-up.  Had it not been for Kyle Imperatore, whose primary role as Chairman William Cartwright, summarizing the events of “Drood” for the audience, the show’s story would have been lost entirely.  Yet for all my grievances, there are far more praises to be expressed, beginning with the impressive cast.           

Holmes’ meta-theatrical foundation for the musical  gave the cast the dual responsibility of playing two roles: a performer in the Music Hall Royale’s theatrical company, and the character they play in their production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Alexandra Bunger-Pool effectively performed the contrasting personas of her roles as the company’s principal actress, Miss Alice Nutting, and Nutting’s role as the title character, Edwin Drood.  As Edwin Drood, Bunger-Pool spoke and moved with a sophisticated air, incorporating a touch of masculinity in her voice and physicality.  Later, when the Music Hall Royale company decides that Edwin Drood dies in Dickens’ story after putting the decision to a vote, it ceases Nutting’s role in the show.  This caused Bunger-Pool to project a scream that ripped through the theater, and marched off with the wrath of a prima donna.  As a vocalist, Bunger-Pool’s voice exuded the gentle, yet bright, tone of a lark, offering an inviting vocal quality amidst several mighty operatic voices.

Nevertheless, singers such as Rachel Harrington (Miss Angela Prysock/Princess Puffer), Emma Gwin (Miss Deidre Peregrine/Rosa Budd) and Dylan Toms (Mr. Clive Paget/John Jasper), blew the audience away with their vocal prowess.  Harrington in particular exhibited extraordinary skill as a comedienne.

Within the ensemble cast, Chris Hrozencik (Mr. Nick Cricker/Durdles) and Emily Gruver (Nick Cricker Jr./Deputy) tickled the audience with their sharp one-liners, and quirky exchanges.  Yet no one snatched the audience’s attention, or affection, as Justin Sumblin (Mr. Philip Bax/Bazzard/The Waiter).  In his first entrance alone, Sumblin ignited waves of laughter with a walk worthy for Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks as he zigzagged his way onto the stage by extending his extraordinarily long legs.

There is much to admire among the performances of the entire cast, yet the lighting and projections designer, Autumn Casey, gave the show its dazzling array of pomp.  John Jasper’s trip to an opium den showcases both of Casey’s masterful designs.  As Jasper falls into a hallucination, the lights bathe the stage in a blood-red hue while the projector screen displays dizzying images of onlookers observing Jasper as though he has become a beast.  The projections in this scene were so astonishing they practically stole the show, drawing more attention than the action occurring on stage.

Together, the energetic performances and the skillful designs create a show both exhilarating and aesthetically pleasing.  However, if you are a Dickens purist searching for a production with a more direct approach to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” you will certainly not find it in this musical rendition.

“Drood” offers an evening of action-packed fun that will have you leave the theater smiling, and humming a few melodies from the show.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” will be performed at the Hylton Performing Arts Center’s Merchant Hall on Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. and on Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.