Riverside Resurrects Drood In A New Slimmed Down Format

By Pam Harbaugh

Riverside Theatre’s Waxlax stage turns into a high-spirited Victorian musical hall with its robust and meticulous production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Directed by DJ Salisbury, the concept here is immersive theater. So expect to participate, comfortably, that is. The audience is not expected to get on stage (thank God) to sing or improvise. But they will join the lusty, laugh-filled party in sing-a-longs and hearty approval of the heroic and disapproval of the villainous.

And, audiences get to vote on whodunit and also choose a pair of lovers (may Dionysus smile upon you and have Durdles be one of the chosen).

This is the slimmed down version of Rupert Holmes’ Tony Award-winning musical based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. Rather than a cast of nearly two dozen, as it was originally written in 1985, here 11 performers and a five-piece music combo re-enact, in grande Delsarte fashion, a tale inhabited by a host of deliciously rococo Dickensian characters.

This is the second professional production of this version, which Salisbury helped Holmes create during a workshop in New York City 10 years ago.

Salisbury, who is also the choreographer, and his excellent, professional cast bring a witty, intricate buoyancy to the stage, reflective of the complicated story.

As The Chairman, the wonderful Warren Kelley, begins the proceedings by advising the audience to get involved and urging them to intone the name “Drood” with playful dread.

Then we are introduced to the rest…and what a “the rest” it is. Salisbury very wisely waits until the show is over before handing out the programs, not only to keep the Victorian musical hall ambience, but also so you can feel vindicated that you said “That woman playing Edwin Drood is so good…. Has she ever done Elphaba?”

That woman is the stunning Anne Brummel, who takes on the role of Edwin Drood, a conceit woven into the actual Victorian music hall experience. (And yes, she’s been the green witch, both as a Broadway standby and in a national tour.) While Brummel perfects the Broadway stage swagger typical of a leading man, she also serves up an unforgettable duet “Perfect Strangers,” which she sings with the exquisite-voiced songbird Rachael Ferrera, who is Rosa Bud, Drood’s intended.

John Paul Almon brings funny restraint to the trustworthy Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. After working at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and more, Almon certainly has that appeal of a seasoned actor who knows how to work the audience with a mere glance of his eye. South Florida theater patrons may recall his Carbonell Award-winning performance in Romeo & Bernadette at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Norman Large and Sally Mayes have hefty professional credits from Broadway to “Star Trek.” As Durdles the gravedigger, Large is a hoot, constantly scratching his behind and leerin’ at the “ligh-dees.” But this actor, who has performed with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa and performed multiple roles in Les Miserables on Broadway, certainly knows his way around a song.

So too does Mayes, who, as Princess Puffer the opium purveyor, wrings out the emotional, heartfelt surprise in the evening with the song “The Garden Path to Hell.” Oh my, to see her in Sweeney Todd, or better still, She Loves Me for which she received a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics nominations.

Claire Neumann and Brian Krinsky are comic hoots as Helena and Neville Landless, mysterious twins from Ceylon. Sarah Primmer and Peter Saide entertain as Flo and Drood’s uncle, John Jasper. You’ll want to see more of oh-so-funny Newmann, who really brightens the stage with exquisite timing and energetic comic expression, which even shows in her speech.

You’ll also want to see more of Andrew Sellon, who brings the same Chaplin-esque feel to his role of Bazzard as he did a year ago to his role as Gaston, the chef in Riverside’s production of An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf. Sellon may ring a bell for South Florida theater patrons who saw him in the Maltz Jupiter Theater’s 2014 production of The Foreigner, which earned him a Carbonell nomination.

The music combo, led by music director Anne Shuttlesworth, stays toe to toe with this professional cast from first downbeat to the final flourish.

Moreover, the look of the show is pumped to the extreme. Kurt Alger’s lavish costumes are sublime. He doesn’t spare a thread, nor a button nor a splash of fur in adding to the visual treat set in the audience’s lap. One such costume is donned merely for an exit of an irate character (Brummel). Alger even lets loose with fabulous wigs (oh, Warren Kelley, we’ve never seen you so perky).

Richard Crowell’s scenic design is big and hearty and Sarah Elliott’s lighting design brings warmth and cheeriness to it. And kudos as well goes to professional stage manager Amy M. Bertacini, who keeps all these elements on perfect pitch.

The only element that rankled was a noisy sheet of metal used for a thunder effect, which went on too long.

This is such a splendid and memorable evening in the theater. You will be transported, lifted out of this daily miasma of gloom and dread into something cheery and fun. Indeed, Riverside’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood is like a big party. And you get to play.

Don’t miss it. Just like Drood himself, tickets are disappearing, so call now.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
runs through Feb. 4, 2018 at Riverside Theatre is at 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach, FL. Tickets are $75. This is a professional production, so performances are throughout the week with matinees on Wednesdays and select Thursdays and Saturdays. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

And for extra credit, here’s a feature story on the production:

By Pam Harbaugh

Audiences at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach have come to expect top flight professional productions with gorgeous scenery, lavish costumes and winning casts.

But with its interactive musical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a.k.a “Drood!”) they’re going to get more: A foray into “immersive theater.”

The production has been mounted in Riverside’s Waxlax Stage, a capacious space known as a “black box” theater where the company has the ultimate flexibility with staging and seating configuration.

But Riverside’s black box is so much more than a “box.” Comfy flexible seating can accommodate a two-act show. The space is large with good acoustics. It has been the venue for thoroughly wrought productions like the impressionistic Copenhagen, realistic Freud’s Last Session and a Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike which was so lavishly produced, it rivaled the theater’s mainstage proscenium productions.

The story setting for Drood is the Victorian Music Hall Royale. The audience sits at cabaret tables where they can order drinks during the performance. A raised performance space sits in the center. “At any moment, the actors can step down and be among the audience who are treated as patrons of the Music Hall Royale, and of course, delightfully so,” said director DJ Salisbury.

Another music hall conceit embraced is using a woman to play the role of Edwin Drood. “In music halls, women performed as men and they became stars,” Salisbury said.

This concept springs right out of the award-winning musical, which was written and composed by Rupert Holmes. Commissioned by the legendary Joseph Papp to write a new musical for the New York Public Theatre, Holmes turned to Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Like most of Dickens’ works, the story has a complicated cast of characters who wind their ways in and out of each other’s lives. Here, the story includes, among others, an opium addicted uncle, a pair of fraternal twins from Ceylon, a pretty ingénue, a kindly pastor, a drunken gravedigger and the ill-fated young man, Edwin Drood.

Like his other works, Drood was created in episodic installments for publications. The only problem is that Dickens left this mortal coil before he penned the mystery’s reveal of “who-done-‘im-in.” While scholars point to Dickens’ own letters and notes saying it was the uncle, no one knows for sure.

Enter Holmes, who turned this frustration into a delightful conceit – the audience gets to solve the mystery by choosing the killer from anyone in the story. Add that to music and lyrics which actor Warren Kelley said will “rock your world,” the musical won Holmes Tony awards for best book of a musica land best score.

Of course, this inventive solution seems almost de rigueur for Holmes. Born in England and raised in New York, Holmes wrote the well-known song “Escape,” also known as the “Pina Colada Song.” He created the television show Remember WENN and wrote a number of plays and musicals, including the book and some lyrics for Curtains, the last work co-written by John Kander and Fred Ebb of Cabaret fame.

When Drood was first produced, it was an expensive show with a cast of 22, Victorian costumes and multiple sets. About 10 years ago in New York City, Salisbury and Kelley, who plays the Chairman in the show, participated in a one-act workshop of the musical.

“Rupert Holmes came,” Salisbury said. “He wanted to workshop it to discover a way to make it more producible with a smaller cast and shorter length.”

They worked it down to a cast of 11 people.

In his character of the Chairman, Kelley, a favorite actor among Riverside patrons, begins the proceedings talking directly to the audience, taking them from one of the story’s settings to another.

“There is a trend currently to have theater be more immediate and intimate,” Kelley said. “Even if it’s in a big space, there are all sorts of gradations in an attempt to make it of the people….It invites the audience to be a participant.”

To facilitate the audience choosing “whodunnit,” Holmes had to write multiple endings. And, Salisbury and his cast had to spend twice as long in rehearsal going through multiple mechanics and what Salisbury swears is 400 possibilities.

“It’s unnerving for the actors,” he said, laughing. “All of the potential murderers have their own musical confession of the murder. Each is a unique telling of the story as to why and how they murdered Edwin Drood. Even the band has to be ready.”

Considering the dizzying details, Salisbury mused, halfway to himself, about the possibilities: “Specifically the lovers’ duets, the song is the same but there are miniature scenes unique to the pairing–Princess Puffer, she could be paired either with the young man from Ceylon or the gravedigger, Durdles, the drunk. Each has their own little scene to lead up to the reprise.”

The production’s immersive aspect comes right out of that conceit: Because the cast turns to the audience for help, the fourth wall vanishes completely and the audience is in on the story, so why not bring them in on the production as well, the thinking goes.

“Rupert is a genius,” Salisbury said. “He’s such a witty writer, but he really also is an historian of the music hall style of theater which was very popular in late 19th century Britain.”

Kelley calls the musical a “love letter to the theater….. The English musical was a precursor of the variety show, the grandfather of The Carol Burnett Show…. Songs, sketches, dances and novelty acts all were part of the English music hall. And Rupert has totally embraced that idea.”

Mixing standard musical theater “at its very best with an English music hall pastiche” and adding a Dickensian world results in a brilliant piece, Kelley said.

“Audiences, I think, really love that they are in on it,” Salisbury said.

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