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Review: Veterans save 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

The Associated Press, Tuesday, November 13, 2012, 5:00pm (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) — Hopefully, everyone managed to vote last week. It's one of our civic duties. But did you know there's some voting that needs to happen on Broadway, too? That might be called your theatrical duty.

Three times toward the end of the inventive revival of the immensely silly "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the audience is called on to weigh in on resolutions to the story, either by a show of hands or clapping. Even the master of ceremonies admits it's a "dangerously democratic move."

We in the seats decide who we think is a mysterious detective's real identity, who the murderer is at the heart of the play, and which couple from among the cast should fall in love. A blatant pandering to our interactive mindsets? Not at all. This was dreamed up in the mid-1980s.

Rupert Holmes, inspired by the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, has supplied the story, songs and lyrics to this bawdy, overstuffed, hammy and self-conscious show, whose revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Tuesday at its Studio 54 theater.

Perhaps the best part is watching the first-rate cast have so much fun — Stephanie J. Block shows real comedic power, Jim Norton is having a ball, Chita Rivera is giggly, Gregg Edelman is just silly and Will Chase is over-acting perfectly. So are Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl. This is a play where overacting can be done to perfection.

In one preview, genuine unscripted silliness followed the votes, matching the freewheeling nature of the show. Scott Ellis' direction is tight — there's almost 20 songs, more than 20 actors and multiple identities being juggled — and yet he's allowed pockets of genuine mirth to open for the veterans on stage to goof around.

Holmes takes advantage of Dickens' unresolved mystery to craft a show-within-a-show. It's set in a London music hall in 1895 and a theatrical troupe is performing the mystery as the troupe's chairman unspools the plot while introducing various actors and adding personal commentary.

The jokes are hoary, the songs are ditties ("Off to the Races" is the best known) and the mystery not so mysterious — "You might like to add that line to your list of suspicious statements!" says one character to the audience — but the fun is infectious, even if it seems that the folks on stage might be having more of it than the paying guests.

No matter: There's the legendary Rivera (as the nefarious Princess Puffer) singing "The Wages of Sin," there's Chase (of "Smash" fame) chewing scenery and doing so marvelously, and there's Block (cross-dressing as the title character) who sings and jokes superbly. Norton, as the chairman, is loony and adorable.

Other highlights include an opium dream beautifully realized by choreographer Warren Carlyle and Anna Louizos' sets that includes a terrific steam-puffing train. William Ivey Long seems to have had as much fun making the lush costumes, especially the Indian-inspired ones worn by Mueller and Karl.

Although "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" won Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score in 1985, this is the first time it has returned to Broadway. The reason may be simple: In the wrong hands, it can sit awkwardly in a Broadway house — too zany, too arch. But these are the right hands: There are veterans at every turn. So no matter who gets the most votes, everyone wins.

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Online: http://www.roundabouttheatre.org

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