The Roundabout’s revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is a diverting and amiable entertainment. Rupert Holmes’ unconventional musical — derived from Dickens’ 1870 serial novel, unfinished when he died without a hint as to how he intended to tie up the plot — was an exuberant romp when Joe Papp’s Public Theater first produced it in 1985. The elements, and the highlights, remain the same, even if the ebullience at Studio 54 seems more manufactured than irrepressible in spots.
Broadway novice Holmes, from the pop-music world, came up with two novel gimmicks when developing this adaptation. He gives Dickens’ moody piece a comic spin, placing it within the framework of an old-fashioned English music-hall stock company. He then takes audience participation to extremes by having ticket buyers vote nightly on whodunit. To that end, Holmes amplifies the fun by giving each of the characters a motive and stocking the plot with red herrings.
Director Scott Ellis, a Roundabout fixture since 1993, turns in his best musical outing in memory. He has imaginatively calibrated the 11 main comedic characters provided by Holmes, allowing them to ham things up thisshort of too much. He has also done a fine job extending the music-hall ambience across the board, coordinating his work with that of choreographer Warren Carlyle and the design team.
The best numbers work just as well as they did originally: the haunting “Nightfall,” the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque tongue-twister “Both Sides of the Coin,” the extraneous but bouncy production number “Off to the Races” and the ever-delicious “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.” But there are others, as the first act winds along, that border on melodramatic operetta filler.
Ellis and his team have assembled a winning and comically adroit cast. Best of the group are Will Chase (“High Fidelity”) as the malevolently evil music teacher/drug addict; Jim Norton (“Finian’s Rainbow”) as the music hall’s master of ceremonies; and especially Jessie Mueller (“On a Clear Day”) as an out-of-place transplant from Ceylon with turquoise-shadowed eyes. Mueller can’t turn her head without getting a roar from the audience and cannily milks it for all it’s worth.
Adding to the fun are Andy Karl as Mueller’s Ceylonese brother and musical-comedy veteran Gregg Edelman as the local reverend. The two leading ladies, Stephanie J. Block (as Drood) and Betsy Wolfe (as the virtuous Rosa Bud), both handle their songs adroitly, although they don’t manage to maintain their presence out of the spotlight as Chase and Mueller do.
Chita Rivera, as the opium-dealing Princess Puffer, is an always-welcome presence and a great audience favorite, but the role doesn’t play to her strengths; she is first and foremost a dancer. Prior Puffers have added extra oomph by standing slightly outside the story, interacting conspiratorily with the audience and knocking the songs and jokes across the footlights. Rivera, for all her talents, doesn’t seem to have that type of outsized personality.
The production is one of the handsomest from Roundabout in years. Set designer Anna Louizos combines the look of the music hall with the style of Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, with grand results. William Ivey Long has a field-day with his costumes, and lighting designer Brian Nason takes full advantage of the opportunities presented.
The fun actually begins before the show starts; the ushers wear period coats and hats, the “music hall” actors roam the stalls, and even the orchestra — split between the boxes on the sides of the house, as usual at Studio 54 — seems part of the crowd. (The estimable Paul Gemignani, climbing to his customary conductor’s perch in the house left box, sports a little black hat emblazoned with what look to be bells or berries.) From the first downbeat, this “Drood” is indeed “off to the races,” albeit with some minor, muddy patches along the way.