On any list of the best English language authors of all time, there will be the name Charles Dickens.
The writer of classics “Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol” died of a stroke in the middle of writing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Like most of his work, it was published in separate monthly episodes. The book was to be done in 12 installments but only six were published and no one knows to this day the ending that Dickens intended. At the end of the sixth installment, we know that Edwin Drood disappears. But Dickens left no notes. Was Drood possibly still alive? If dead, who killed him?
The speculation on what happened next has been the subject of many essays and books. Solutions have been offered in several movies but it is all guessing.
But brilliantly the musical by Rupert Holmes (prolific songwriter, best known for “The Pina Colada Song”) brings to life all the characters in a play within a play in a 19th century English music hall. It is there that we the audience decide in a vote, who killed Edwin Drood.
Dickens’ writing, as well as the highly anticipated segmenting of the chapters for consumption, made him very popular and a must read. Putting the play in a Victorian music hall, where there is intimacy and a back and forth throughout the evening with the audience, captures the magic of Dickens writing in a different way that equally exploits an exciting relationship between storyteller and reader/audience.
Even before the show officially begins, there is a special conviviality as the music hall performers are in front of the curtain as you come into the theater, engaging in conversation with you. This interaction is almost familial. After all, you are part of this production, since you are writing the play’s ending.
At Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville, N.J., the host or Chairman of the proceeding at the music hall is played by the talented and irrepressible Patrick Lavery, who engages the audience from the onset. The plot line is that John Jasper (Louis Palena), choirmaster and music teacher, is obsessed with his music pupil, Rosa Budd (Jen Gursky). But Ms. Budd is engaged to Jasper’s young nephew Edwin Drood (Alison McMullen).
When Drood becomes missing, Jasper’s jealousy of Drood’s relationship with Ms. Budd is the obvious motive to suspect that Jasper killed Drood. His opium addiction and delusions further support that claim. But, as explained by The Chairman, that being the obvious answer would indicate that it is the wrong one. There were quite a few references indicating that the story was going in a different direction.
Could the killer be Rosa herself? Princess Puffer (Cathy Alaimo) who runs the opium den? Reverend Crisparkle (Rhett Commodaro), who has a secret love? The underappreciated Bazzard (John Fischer)? Durdles (David Whiteman) the grave digger? The often angry, foreign-born Neville Landless (Jordan Brennan)? Helena Landless (Lauren Brader), the mysterious twin sister?
In the music hall tradition, there is a male impersonator in the show. This is the case with Drood being played by a woman (in the tradition of Vesta Tilley), which is done by the marvelous McMullen. Her voice is so clear and on point. As good if not better than Stephanie Block from the Broadway revival.
Kudos to Fischer and Gursky. Fischer’s “legit” voice is, also, one that you imagine hearing on The Great White Way and Gursky’s lovely soprano is perfection. It is unusual for the love duet between a man and a woman be two sopranos but in this musical it happens. Palena as Jasper shows what incredible range he has as an actor. Alaimo is charming as Princess Puffer.
A shout out to a new member at Music Mountain and this is the turntable, which was utilized a couple of times in staging the show to a marvelous effect. Loved it. Bravo to directors/choreographers Palena and Brennan. And, again, to Brennan as costume designer. The sets were incredible, as was lighting and sound. Technical director was Chris Cichon. Sound designed by McAfee Madding. Tickets can be purchased at showclix.com/event/the-mystery. The show runs through Oct. 31.