By Patrick O’Brien
I’ll say one thing’s for sure about Blank Theatre’s Mystery of Edwin Drood: because the ending hinges on audience vote, you’ll learn who in the cast had friends and family in the house.
Actually, two things for sure: the nascent Blank Theatre Company’s got chutzpah. Their antidote to a Christmastide already filled to bursting with Charles Dickens is more Charles Dickens. But The Mystery of Edwin Drood is tantalizing Dickens, for sure, and it’s one of literature’s most infamous cold cases, the story left unfinished upon his death. Who despised the ambitious if supercilious Edwin enough to do him in? Is Edwin actually dead? What dreadful secrets are locked inside the brain of John Jasper, his drug-addled uncle? Who’s really behind the preposterous disguise of detective Dick Datchery?
Okay, three things: they got ambition. Packed to the gills with youngsters, and their previous repertoire skewing toward the contemporary, Drood , Tony’s Best Musical of 1986, is not an obvious selection. And it’s a tricky one to pull off: picking up where Dickens left off, the singing-songwriting-mysterysmith Rupert Holmes crafted multiple endings decided by audience vote: Datchery’s true identity, Drood’s true assailant, and some lovers for a happy ending. There’s got to be at least two hundred combinations to keep straight.
…Four things. There’s a vital scene that takes place on Christmas Eve. By Die Hard standards, Drood is a Christmas musical.
But, try as Blank might, this wonderfully overstuffed Christmas ham of a musical feels undercooked.
For the most part, Holmes dispensed with the doom-and-gloomier parts of the story in favor of the holly-jolly realm of a Victorian music-hall putting on a knees-up of the story. Therefore, we need a space with a warm glow, a sense of olden gaiety, where — crossing our Dickens, but still — old Fezziwig might throw one of his old-accustomed parties. The Edge Theatre is a bit of a chilly lecture hall, sad to say, and it’s just about as conducive to controlled anarchy.
Holmes’ metatheatrical angle provides some built-in goodwill that could counter that. As our humble Chairman (read: M.C.) (Dustin Rothbart) calls upon each member of the company to engage in their special turns, you have to applaud. But only a handful consistently fit within this face-front sing-out lime-lit milieu: Maisie Rose as finicky male impersonator Alice Nutting as the caddish Drood; Chase Heinemann as company ladykiller Clive Padgett as the mad Jasper; Aaron Mann as clown Nick Cricker as cryptkeeper Durdles; Phoebe Moore as nightingale ingenue Deidre Peregrine as Rosa Bud, Drood’s bethrothed. (She was declared the murderer the night I saw it.) Also props to Brian Warner as lowly numerary Philip Bax as the lowly clerk Bazzard. (If you go, vote for his turn as Datchery.)
Everything else is more gruely. A piano and upright bass can get Holmes’s oom-pah-pah-ier moments across, but underserve his more luscious creations, like Moore’s sensuous “Moonfall.” British accents skip across the Atlantic and back. Even though this is sometime during the 1890s, modern dress makes for incongruous costuming choices. (For one brief interlude, there’s not even a pretense of period.) A mélange of chairs, racks, and bric-a-brac are shuffled about to set each scene, but those scene changes — everything, really — feels less like quicksilver improvisation or disciplined vaudevillian rehearsal then it does, well, like shuffling things about.
Above all, more than many other musicals, a production of Drood needs to create an atmosphere — of play, honored history, and, yes, even a little mystery — to imbue the evening and tie everything up with a big frilly bow. At the Edge, what you see is what you get.
And that’s the last thing I’ll say of it.
Blank Theatre presents “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” through December 29 at the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway. Tickets ($15-25) and other information are available here.