Rupert Holmes’ achievement in his musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is little short of astonishing, crafting the book, music and lyrics with quick-witted mastery. Not content to merely present the novel, he ambitiously adds another level of complexity by making the story a production by a British music hall, complete with cast infighting and flirtations. And because Dickens died before completing his novel, Holmes provides not only an ending but multiple endings, decided by audience vote, a dizzying level of self-reflexivity that ultimately highlights the primal power of communal storytelling. It’s a celebration of theater, and the new production at Sacred Fools, under Douglas Clayton’s outstanding direction, is a resounding success.
Arrogant young Edwin Drood (Rachel Greene) is about to leave Victorian England for India, not to make his fortune, but in his narcissistic opinion, to make theirs. This doesn’t endear him to recent sibling immigrants from Ceylon, Neville (Joe Fria) and Helena Landless (Harmony Goodman), however much their patron, the Reverend Crisparkle (Chairman Barnes), attempts to make amends.
Drood intends to marry Rosa Bud (Natalie Taylor) before he leaves the country, much to the dismay of her music teacher, John Jasper (Matthew Tyler). Jasper is obsessed with young Rosa, and is falling apart to the extent that he frequents the opium den of Princess Puffer (Alexandra Billings). Suffice it to say that there is no lack of foul play suspects when Drood disappears one dark night.
Tyler is superb as the suspicious Jasper, playing the character’s menace and despair simultaneously, and his singing is strong. Taylor is the very picture of Victorian beauty as Rosa, quite fine as the distressed ingenue, and her operatic voice is used to stunning effect in “Moonfall.” Greene makes Drood a suitable victim, and is rudely amusing as the annoyed actress playing the role.
Fria and Goodman are wonderfully over-the-top as mysterious siblings Neville and Helena, getting the maximum comic impact from every line or dramatically raised eyebrow.
Barnes brings believable warmth to his perf as Crisparkle, and Jeffrey Markle is delightful as the drunken Durdles. Billings is comedic gold as Puffer, raunchily hilarious and blessed with the voice of a Broadway belter, which is used to bravura effect in “The Wages of Sin.” Finally, Tim Thorn steals the show as the master of ceremonies, a perf that expertly combines sly wit, skill, charisma and pure showmanship.
Clayton’s direction shows itself in the excellence of the piece as a whole, from the detailed performances to the fluid staging of a huge cast in a small area, and he demonstrates definitively that this show actually benefits from playing in a more intimate environment.
John Pennington’s choreography is constantly fresh and surprising, and Bill Newlin’s music direction is energetically exceptional. Joel Daavid’s detailed music hall set is an extraordinarily clever use of the theatrical space, and Edward Marks’ impressionistic lighting memorably uses deep reds and blues to create vistas of emotion.
Suzanne Klein’s vivid array of lush costumes serve the show brilliantly, and Heather Hopkins’ makeup adds measurably to this fantastic production.