The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Phoenix Ensemble)
May 7 – 29
The little known “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is the final novel by Charles Dickens, originally published in 1870. Its lack of familiarity, despite being written by an author who is regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, is understandable, however, given that the story was left unfinished upon his death, with only six of a planned 12 instalments having been published. With no detailed plan for a solution to the novel’s mystery, later adaptations have stepped in, including the musical of the same name, in which audience vote determines the ending.
In Phoenix Ensemble’s hands, experience of the multi-Tony award winning musical is immersive from its outset, gripping the audience’s spirit for the experience ahead. Performers interact with audience members from lead into the show’s Royal Music Hall setting and while we are seated in the stalls, before we are welcomed by the show-within-a-show’s very important stage manager and then, in keeping with music hall tradition, the charismatic Chairman (Shannon Foley), a master of ceremonies of sort who instigates the action on stage after bursting forth with the show’s rollicking opening number ‘There You Are’.
The musical is very metatheatrical, meaning that the characters of the play “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” are being played by actors of the Music Hall, within the production. It sounds confusing but it really isn’t, thanks to the Chairman’s guidance. He begins with introduction of the Jekyll and Hydeish opium-addicted and obsessed choirmaster John Jasper, played by Clive Paget (Zach Price), and through him, his young nephew Edwin Drood played by Alice Nutting (Carly Wilson), in a nod to pantomime traditions of a lead boy portrayed by a young female in male drag.
Drood is engaged to the orphaned beauty Miss Rosa Bud played by Deidre Peregrine (Hayley Marsh), who is Jasper’s music pupil and obsession, but has been promised to Drood in wedlock since they were children. Then there are also the kindly Reverend Crisparkle played by Cedric Monfcrieffe (Andrew McArthur) and two exotic sibling emigrants from Ceylon, Helena played by Janet Conover (AJ Betts) and Neville Landless played by Victor Grinstead (Puawai Herewini), which causes conflict courtesy of Neville’s attraction to Rosa.
The device of not having actors specially playing Dickens’ characters, but rather music hall performers who are performing as Dickens’ characters, allows room for much humour, in contrast to the typically dense misery of the author’s work, including in the additional musical numbers created by Rupert Holmes (of ‘Pina Colada Song’ pedigree), who is responsible for the show’s book, music and lyrics. There is a very vaudevillian feel, especially evident in the appearances of stonemason Durdles (Tristan Ham) and his nimble young offsider Deputy (Kohen Arstall) and lots of obvious side eyes to the audience, which all form part of the fun.
While the action slows a little in Act Two after we reach the end of Dickens’ original story, pantomime prevails with audience oohing and ahhing, booing and hissing as we have our input by virtue of applause and a voting process into concluding the mystery by determining the true identify of Act Two’s detective Dick Datchery, who will be our murderer (if that indeed is the explanation for Drood’s disappearance after a Christmas Eve dinner and attempted reconciliation for the Landless twins, the reverend, Rosa and Drood) and who will be our lovers (because every good musical requires a happy ending). And the ad libs and unintended moments that arise as a consequence only add to the fun of the unique theatre experience.
All performers are strong in their multi-faceted roles. Shannon Foley is an energetic master of ceremonies, who recovers easily on the occasions his punny double entendre-type audience banter deliberately falls flat. Carolyn Latter is an audience favourite as Angela Prysock playing the glamourous ruined Princess Puffer, from her bawdy ‘Wages of Sin’ musical introduction and explanation of her life as Madame of the sinister opium den frequented by Jasper, however, it is William Chen’s enthusiasm as the devoted understudy Philip Bax playing the reverend’s clerk Bazzard, that endears his character most into our affections, especially when he finally gets his moment in ‘Never The Luck’. And McArthur is wonderful as the bumbling clergyman, finding the funny in detail down to even an eyebrow raise.
While the score lacks any particularly memorable numbers, it does allow for the cast to shine. Wilson’s vocals are commanding, which is evident early in Act One from her ‘Two Kinsmen’ duet with Drood’s uncle Jasper. And Marsh brings some lovely operatic-type tones to her numbers. In particular, ‘Moonfall’ in which she sings the innuendo-heavy love song Jasper has written for her, showcases not only this, but Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Herne’s noteworthy keyboard contribution.
Other standout numbers come courtesy of ensemble pieces such as the relentless patter song ‘Both Sides of the Coin’ in which the Chairman, who is also Mayor Sapsea, and Jasper examine the dual natures of their suspicious characters before transitioning into a grand ensemble number. And Storm Fraser’s choreography does an excellent job in catering to the cast of 18, given the small tin shed space.
Also in the Act Two number ‘Settling Up the Score’, the setting of Cloisterham train station is easily evoked thanks to clever choreography that sees cases seamlessly transform from a train to a moving tableaux of daily busyness. And Liam Gilliland’s lighting design works well to darkens us to the depths of Jasper’s obsessive passion. The most memorable aspect of the show’s aesthetics, however, comes courtesy of Justin Tubb-Hearne’s lavish costume pieces. Lush colours and opulent fabrics enliven characterisation and assist in transporting the audience into the story, while providing their own visual interest.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is certainly musical theatre done differently. The hilarious whodunit mystery musical’s interactivity, allowing the audience to enter the action as the ultimate detectives, makes for not only a unique but a uniquely shared experience, fostering many interval conversations as to different theories and suspect preferences. That its Victorian-style musical hall sensibility only adds to its feeling of fun, is reason too, why this production should not be missed.
Photos: c/o – Kenn Santos / PIF Photography