by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” opened last weekend at ABET and will run through September 22, at 716 Ocean Boulevard, Atlantic Beach. For reservations, call 249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com.
This is a delightful revival of Rupert Holmes’s musical murder mystery romp. Holmes took Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel of the same name and created a musical set in London’s Music Hall Royale in the late 1800s. In this play within a play, all the actors are British, and are performing “Drood” for the evening’s entertainment. Dickens completed only six of twelve episodes; the script follows Dickens’ narrative until it ends abruptly. Drood has disappeared and the audience is asked to provide an ending by identifying his murderer.
Drood won the Tony for Best Musical and Best Original Score in 1986. It was revived in New York in 2012, and was nominated for best revival but did not win. The only previous production on local stages was sixteen years ago in 1997 at Theatre Jacksonville.
ABET’s version succeeds due to the exceptional casting and direction of SAM FISHER. This is a gloriously wrought revival, with special emphasis on antics based on the traditions of British popular entertainment. You probably won’t walk out humming any of the tunes. Although “Wages of Sin” is both catchy and enlightening, “Moonfall”, “No Good Can Come From Bad”, and “Never the Luck” are not familiar titles. The songs do advance the plot and there are a couple of lively toe tapping numbers in “Off to the Races” and “Both Sides of the Coin”, which were definitely crowd pleasers.
This is the story of young Edwin Drood, played by LESLIE RICHART (male impersonators were in vogue in those music hall days). This is not only the mystery of Edwin Drood but also the mystery of how such a rich and powerful voice can come from such a petite and attractive lady as Ms.Richart. Drood is betrothed to Rosa Bud, as arranged by their parents years before. As Rosa, JESSICA ALEXANDER is a lovely porcelain beauty with a magnificent voice. John Jasper (JAMES ALEXANDER) is the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral and Drood’s uncle. He dresses in black leather, smokes opium, and is jealous of Drood as he wants Rosa for himself. Alexander has an impressive resume, which includes appearances in “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Full Monty.”
Yet another rival is charmed by Rosa when the orphaned and hot-headed Neville Landless (ALEC HADDEN) arrives from his native Ceylon. He is accompanied by his twin sister Helena (DAISY MILLER), who complicates matters when she becomes Rosa’s best friend. We have enjoyed Hadden’s excellent vocal talents a number of times at Jacksonville University where he is a senior in the musical theatre program. Ms. Miller continues to impress local audiences in challenging new roles. We recall her at Luisa in “The Fantasticks” and Polly Peachum in “Threepenny Opera.”
Other colorful characters may have reason to do Mr. Drood in, but we will let you discover their motives when you see the show. AMY FARMER is Princess Puffer, madam of an infamous London opium den. She is a high-powered performer, and certainly one of Jacksonville’s favorites. She has a polished voice and a gleaming presence that fills the stage.
Now in his 55th year of acting in community theatre, BOB SHELLENBERGER as the very humorous Reverend Crisparkle is the consummate professional he has always been, and definitely a crowd favorite. We still remember his fabulous Major General in “The Pirates of Penzance” several years ago.
Veteran local actor LEONARD ALTERMAN is Durdles, a disheveled stonemason. While his heart belongs to his ever-present jug of wine, he is an expert on the local cemetery. His performance is a delicious slice of ham.
RICHARD SPEED, as Bazzard, portrays a minor character who is given a big chance with a big number. “Never the Luck” is a delight. This is only his second community theatre role. We had the opportunity to see this talented actor on stage at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and we are sure you will be seeing more of him locally.
We have saved the first for last. DAVID JON DAVIS plays the pivotal role of The Chairman. He is the music hall proprietor, host, and prompter. He is also a stand-in for missing actors. Davis handles this demanding role with aplomb and is on stage the entire show, and when not singing, does some humorous ad-libs, as audience participation is encouraged. Better stand in front of that bathroom mirror and practice your booing, hissing, and cheering.
S. J. ROCHE is the stage manager of the music hall’s motley crew and even brought along her own personal dog DAKOTAH (a performing veteran, read the program). This well behaved hound plays the companion to one of the actors in the play.
Rounding out the cast with various duties, among them dancing up a storm at the end of Act One to the choreography of CODY RUSSELL, are LAUREN BELL as Beatrice, ELEANA CARRION as Wendy, ANASTACIA GRIFFIN as Flo, and HAYS JACOBS as Deputy.
Musical Director ZEEK SMITH, in addition to all his other work at various local theaters, has found a home at ABET, where this is his fourth show. Mr. Smith has assembled an outstanding orchestra with Hector Luis Gonzalez Toro Jr. on keyboard 2, Damon Martin on bass, and Alex Smith handing the percussion. This is a complex show as Smith must be prepared with alternate songs for the characters identified by the audience as the murderer.
The audience also selects by applause which male and female characters would make a happy romantic couple. Practice clapping and yelling as your vote really counts in this one, which is one of the most hilarious portions of the show.
The minimalistic set design by JESS TAYLOR uses an open stage most of the time, with a few props brought on (like a miniature piano for the dastardly John Jasper). The lighting design by BRYAN FRANK captures the zany exuberance, as well as darker moments in the opium den. The campy costume designs by TIFFANY JORDAN provide lavish splendor and outrageous pastiche, mixed in with the drab garb of the underclass.
Looking for a Christmas present for a British friend? Visual Artist KEVIN TICKEL has painted a very LARGE portrait of Queen Victoria that is very visible to the audience. The theatre is accepting bids for it.
Director Sam Fisher and Stage Manager Amanda Eason have worked together in past shows, and they make a good team. Fisher is becoming a very much in demand director and already has two future projects scheduled.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” features some of Jacksonville’s outstanding voices. This show has an intriguing premise and is very lively. While there is no language in the play, there are a couple of moments when things do get a bit bawdy. Be sure to get to the theatre early as the entire company comes out BEFORE the opening curtain and goes through the audience chatting with patrons. Lots of fun.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM