(SPOILER ALERT: There may be plot spoilers in this review.)
I went into Studio 54 this past Saturday with excited anticipation and a bit of trepidation. You see - and frequent readers of this blog know this already - The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of my absolute, all-time favorite shows. It has always been, for me, the pinnacle of fun shows, the height of all things theatrical, and also a show with a score of songs that I love from beginning to end. I'll admit that back in the 80's some of my love for the show was due to some star-struck awe at a cast that included Betty Buckley, Howard McGillin and the late, great George Rose. But subsequent viewings and dozens of different casts and productions have made me realize that, in fact, it is the show that I adore. And so, with a passion for the original and a certain sense of "star-struckness" (I mean, Chita Rivera...Will Chase...Jessie Mueller...) at the cast of veterans and the current class of Broadway leaders, I was both looking forward to seeing what they could do with the show AND fearful that I'd be disappointed.
I couldn't have more thrilled at the outcome. To put it simply, this revival is a visually stunning, gloriously sung and thrillingly acted production that is just as great, if not better than the original.
|"There You Are"|
In the wrong hands, Rupert Holmes'/Charles Dickens' complicated plot and multitude of characters alone would be a confusing mess even for the most seasoned theater-goer and/or mystery buff. Even more so, when you throw in the fact the audience is also a character with the responsibility of dictating how the show will end, and that there is a show-within-the-show plot! But not to worry, director Scott Ellis and his creative staff know exactly what they are doing. Ellis himself has made sure the proceedings are brisk. All the salient points are hit and emphasized, and each scene is sharply focused. And he also has gotten his cast to mine every single laugh (and then some) from the script and the situation. The melodrama is high, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge factor is through the roof, and the idea of over playing is not only on the table, it is embraced. Yet he manages to keep all the pieces in check and is always careful to take us right to the edge of crazy before he snatches us back from the brink, only to start pushing us out for more. I imagine that creating an atmosphere of controlled chaos without it looking too rehearsed is difficult at best; this show demands it and Mr. Ellis delivers. His staging partner in crime is the super busy choreographer Warren Carlyle who does his part by creating high spirited dances that include acrobatics, kick lines, waltzes and quick-step partnering. Each number is fun - and it looks like the cast is having a grand time doing them - particularly the Act One opener, "There You Are" and the Act One closer, "Off to the Races." The lady next to me could barely sit still during that number, so furiously were her feet tapping! And I have to say that this is the first production of the show that I've seen where "Jasper's Vision" didn't feel like it was just thrown in. Here, it is at once creepy, yet character-driven, sexy, not dirty, and thoroughly creative. It doesn't just show how "bad" Jasper is, it provides motive, plot points and even a little sympathy for the villain.
Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block and Will Chase
Visually, this Drood is a stunner. From the moment you walk into the lobby, you know this will be a different experience, what with posters of all the actors from "previous roles" at the Music Hall Royale and even the ushers in period garb. Nothing really prepares you for the "wow" you get when you first see the stage, though: floor-to-ceiling, and well out into the house, designer Anna Louizos has made sure that we leave 2012 at the door and walk into 1895 with eyes wide and jaws dropped. Her continuously lavish set with huge colorful drops that lift to reveal a number of beautifully appointed sets are Tony-worthy. Speaking of Tony-worthy, William Ivey Long has probably earned another one with his gorgeous costume designs. I can only imagine how much fun he has shopping for the material, let alone creating these works of art. Pictures simply will not do either the sets or the costumes justice. They have to be experienced first hand. Helping to focus our eyes where they need to be, too, is lighting designer Brian Nason, who has used broad, bright strokes to create the bawdy world of the music hall (the openings of each act), and pinpoint pools of light with spots to heighten each clue and character revelation (the thrilling "No Good Can Come From Bad") and the absence of light to create the seedy world of the opium dens ("Jasper's Vision"). To all of their credit, while I am sure the most modern technology has been used here, great care has been used by the entire creative team to make the show feel old fashioned. For example, it would have been easier and probably cheaper to use computer generated scenery, or to go high tech with the murderer's confessions. But they didn't and Drood is all the better for it.
Even though there are names above the title in the program, Drood is truly an ensemble effort. Every single cast member gets to shine. The hard working "Citizens of Cloisterham" (Alison Cimmet, Kyle Coffman, Nick Corley, Janine DiVita, Shannon Lewis, Spencer Plachy, Kiira Schmidt, Eric Sciotto and Jim Walton) are charged with a ton of singing, dancing and "citizenry" and they play a crucial role in creating the finale per the audience's specifications. One can only imagine how exhausting a two-show day must be for all concerned.
Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block
|"The Name of Love/Moonfall"|
Betsy Wolfe and Will Chase
Andy Karl, Jessie Mueller, Stephanie J. Block and Ensemble
As for the principal company, I can't imagine a better set of today's Broadway best to perform this show. Top to bottom, they each nail the whimsy of their characters and do their damnedest to please us the grand tradition of the British music hall (think bawdy vaudeville). As Edwin Drood, Stephanie J. Block attacks the role with gust and hilarious machismo. Her voice, particularly in the closing anthem, "The Writing on the Wall," is clear and powerful and that last note... WOW. At last, I can see what all the fuss is about her - I am a convert! Will Chase looks to be having the time of his life playing the dual-personality, much suffering villain of the piece. He schmoozes a sleazy sexuality like he's spreading frosting on a cake, his devilish eyes twinkling, his whole body writhing with pent up fury. Hilariously, he turns it on and off like a fast flip of the switch. And his voice has never sounded better. A wondrous surprise is Betsy Wolfe, whose work I am not that familiar with; she is a riot as the company tramp, wriggling her breasts and shaking her hips for anyone who wants to see, and then embodying the virginal innocence of Rosa Bud, classic ingenue. She is simply terrific in every way, and her "Moonfall" sets a new standard for that classic audition piece. Andy Karl has infused the brooding Neville Landless with eyebrow work of such skill that Broadway has never seen before! You can tell that he relishes each "sting" in the music as an opportunity to win over the audience, and his movements - exaggerated Ceylonese - is both funny and astonishingly precise. That is no small task given that those moves are done in tandem with his "twin" Helena, played with fiery intensity by clear audience favorite Jessie Mueller, who proves here that she is more than the chanteuse we first met in On a Clear Day last season. She is comic gold. It is no wonder she so frequently is voted for at the end of the show, either as the murderer, as Dick Datchery (as she was on this occasion) or as a lover. Broadway favorite Gregg Edelman is so funny as the befuddled (or is he?) Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. In those brief moments where Crisparkle's truest nature are revealed, Edelman amps up the camp and makes me want to return just to see how he relishes killing Drood!
|"No Good Can Come From Bad"|
|The Rogue's Gallery|
8 Suspects for your consideration!
There are a few characters thrown in for comic relief and/or as red herrings, and they could easily be written off. Not here, however. Robert Creighton's jolly drunkard Durdles is a dirty joke machine and his young apprentice, the Deputy, is played with a childlike sense of wonder by West Side Story alum Nicholas Barasch. At just 14, he is already proving he can hold his own with some of the business' heaviest hitters. I look forward to seeing what looks to be a long career for this guy. (I was lucky enough to see him play lover against the legend of the cast, and he kept right up with her like a seasoned veteran!) Another curious part -underwritten on purpose just as with the Dickens original - is that of Bazzard, so charmingly played by the wide-eyed Peter Benson, that we voted him the culprit of the show. His rendition of "Never the Luck," an ode to every understudy, was charming and made all the more delightful as it is turned into a murderous confession! And then there is the wonderfully understated, delightfully droll and superbly funny Jim Norton who plays Chairman Cartright - narrator, substitute player, and all around joy to watch. The way he plays it all so cagey and down low is a great counterpoint to all of the mayhem and mischief around him. And finally, that aforementioned "legend." Who better to play "the grand dame of the music hall" than a "grand dame of Broadway," Chita Rivera? Apparently nothing can stop this woman. While her character has shorter stage time, that doesn't mean Rivera holds back. Far from it. She still has it, believe me. She talk-sings her way through some pretty tricky lyrics, and bellows the low notes with foghorn intensity, and her comic timing is spot on. But nothing matches the sheer joy on her face when she joins her fellow gypsies in rousing dance numbers or that "this is where I belong" smile as she joins the kick line in "Don't Quit While You're Ahead." She's a dancer at heart and she's doing a hell of a job. (And what a kick to see this 5 decades in the biz gal mix it up with a real Broadway baby! A finer example of sharing the stage for a spectacular moment and genuine professionalism is nowhere else on Broadway right now.)
So now the question becomes... what are you waiting for? The best revival of the year is playing at Studio 54. If you love the wonder that is live theatre and all that is possible in performing it, you really must see The Mystery of Edwin Droooooood!
(Photos by Joan Marcus)