If Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show married Sally Bowles from Cabaret in a garishly ornate Victorian music hall, you’d get something approximating The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The show-within-a-show that opened on Thursday night at the Red Deer College Arts Centre is gloriously campy, a trifle bawdy and screams Broadway Musical! In other words, it’s thoroughly entertaining and well worth seeing — as much for its sly asides and winks at the audience as for the talented Red Deer Theatre Studies cast.
What voices these young actors possess! There was nary a weak song in the two-act production, under the deft direction of RDC instructor Tom Bradshaw — although sound was sometimes a problem (more on that later).
The premise of the Tony Award-winning musical by Rupert Holmes is that a version of the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens is being staged by a Victorian acting troupe at the English Music Hall Royale.
This means the RDC actors are pretending to be period actors, pretending to be Dickens characters. Add to this abstraction that the lead role of Edwin Drood (pronounced “Droooooooooo-D!” ) is played by a female actor who’s billed as “England’s leading male impersonator” and you get the full picture.
Fortunately this fast-paced show, loaded with groaner puns and in-jokes, isn’t complicated to understand, thanks to the Chairman (played by an affable Evan MacLeod), who narrates the action and guides the audience through the melodramatic and mysterious disappearance of Edwin Drood.
The dutiful title character, played by Robyn Jeffrey, is engaged to marry innocent “child-bride” Rosa Budd (Erin Pettifor) through a betrothal both their parents arranged years ago, before promptly dying. Neither Edwin nor Rosa are that into each other, so their nuptials are more founded on obligation than eager anticipation.
When Edwin vanishes during a thunderstorm on Christmas Eve, suspicion falls on his opium-addicted uncle John Jasper (Warren Stephens) — who’s comings are supposed to prompt booing and hissing from the audience.
Jasper envies his nephew and covets Rosa — much to her horror and distress.
Add to the suspect list the “half-caste” twins Neville and Helena Landless (Damon Lutz and Pharaoh Seeley). The orphans arrive from India to become wards of the Reverend Crisparkle (Richie Jackson). And hot-headed Neville take a shine to Rosa and develops an instant rivalry with the priggish Edwin.
Rosa’s looks don’t go unnoticed by Crisparkle, who has a “sherious” speech impediment and sports the biggest set of mutton-chop sideburns this side of Marvel Comics’ Wolverine. Seems the Reverend was once in love with Rosa’s mother, who met an unfortunate end after marrying someone else and producing her mini-me, Rosa.
Many other memorable characters make appearances, including Princess Puffer, who rules the opium den, strongly played by Rina Pelltier; the scene-stealing Bazzard (Brock Beal); street woman Durdles (Emily Cupples); and the German ex-pat stage manager (Nate Rehman).
Since the unfinished novel’s outcome remains a mystery, the audience gets to vote on who killed Edwin Drood and other plot points at each performance. I won’t reveal how Thursday’s votes went except to say the underdogs prevailed.
There were some wonderfully stylized scenes, including a dinner party during a lightning storm. And most of the singing was exceptional — especially show-stopping solo numbers performed by Pettifor, Pelltier, MacLeod, Jeffrey and Beal, under the direction of vocal coaches Sharon Braun and Val Sherman.
But there were also annoyances when one had to strain to hear lyrics conveying pertinent plot points. One of the more muffled songs involved Jasper revealing his feelings about the Edwin-Rosa engagement. Stephens made a dastardly good villain, but could have spoken clearer to be understood. This would also have benefitted a few other actors at certain points in the musical.
Another hard-to-decipher song, in the second act, involved Princess Puffer (Pelltier) unravelling a certain plot twist. This lack of clarity was due to a technical glitch because Pelltier wielded a strong, colourful voice in the first act.
Hopefully these issues will be resolved as the run progresses. The music in Drood was, otherwise, fantastic. Kudos to the band in the orchestra pit, led by conductor Steve Sherman.
There was also an eye-catching antiquated set, designed by Carrie Hamilton, over-the-top period costumes by Brian Bast, and lighting to create a gas-lit mood by Heather Cornick.
We tend to associate Dickens with the moralistic favourite, A Christmas Carol. Well here’s an edgy, innovative take on a more fun and frivolous Dickens tale that could also become a seasonal treat.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs to Nov. 29.