Friday, April 10, 2015

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD • Stray Dog Theatre

About the only thing better than a whodunit is one that allows the audience to choose the culprit. Add in a nifty conceit of some play-within-a-play action, and you've got Stray Dog's impressive current offering, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", written in 1985 by singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes. This Tony Award-winning musical was inspired by the last unfinished novel of Charles Dickens, who died suddenly from a stroke in 1870, leaving the mystery unsolved. Holmes retooled the novel, setting it in an English music hall where the company's actors play the characters from the story, and left it to the audience to decide the outcome.

Stray Dog's space at Tower Grove Abbey is transformed into the boisterous Music Hall Royale, buzzing with pre-show activity thanks to the incredibly engaging and hard-working ensemble members. After our M.C. for the evening, the Chairman (a winning Gerry Love), welcomes us, he sets the stage, introducing us to his group of rather self-centered actors and the characters they will play, along with Edwin Drood himself, played by famed male impersonator, Alice Nutting (a robustly-voiced Heather Matthews). Joining Matthews in the strong pipes department is Eileen Engel, who not only adds a lovely voice to Drood's love interest, Rosa Bud, but also supplies the splendid costumes.

Gerry Love (Mr. William Cartwright, Chairman) and cast.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The unstoppable Lavonne Byers plays the Princess Puffer, the proprietor of an opium den, whose number, "The Wages of Sin" was a highlight. Her establishment is frequented by John Jasper, the local choirmaster, opium fiend and Drood's uncle, maniacally played by Zachary Stefaniak, who also provides the marvelous choreography -- no small feat considering the size of the cast. Then there are the Landless twins, recently orphaned and emigrated from Ceylon. Kimberly Still is fun to watch as Helena Landless, throwing comically exaggerated glances to the audience every time her name is mentioned, with Kelvin Urday playing her hot-tempered brother, Neville.
Lavonne Byers (The Princess Puffer).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Michael Juncal as the Stage Manager is also one worth keeping your eye on -- usually off to the side but constantly absorbed, and while Patrick Kelly is delightful as the Reverend Crisparkle, Michael A. Wells shines, lending his superb vocals and charm to poor old Bazzard, yearning for his moment in the spotlight. The murderer, as well as the identity of Detective Dick Datchery and the identities of a romantic pairing, requires cast members to be on their toes, as there are several versions of the confession depending on how the vote turns out. The night I went, Princess Puffer was chosen as the murderer, with Bazzard as Dick Datchery and Helena and the Deputy (Kevin Connelly) as the lovers.

Director Justin Been upholds the intended melodramatic mood of the piece and guides his cast solidly through the show's twenty numbers with boundless energy. Under Chris Petersen's musical direction, the band sounds good, except for a couple of tempo issues with the cast that are sure to be smoothed out as the run continues (I technically saw the show on a preview night, so this is only a quibble). Rob Lippert's two-tier scenic design allows plenty of movement for the cast and includes a few versatile set pieces and a raised platform that runs down the middle of the audience.

(l to r) Patrick Kelly (The Rev. Mr. Crisparkle),
Kimberly Still (Helena Landless),
Kelvin Urday (Neville Landless),
Zachary Stefaniak (John Jasper),
Heather Matthews (Edwin Drood)
and Eileen Engel (Rosa Bud).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This one shouldn't be missed. As is often the case with Stray Dog shows, I was quite looking forward to this. I've been a fan of "Drood" since its NYC revival because of… you know… reasons. I may have to go back and see it again. Get your tickets before they sell out!


THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD

Book/lyrics and music by Rupert Holmes
Directed by Justin Been, assistant director, Jan Niehoff
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 18 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday, April 18 at 2pm

(front, l to r) Sara Rae Womack, Mike Hodges,
Michael Juncal (Mr. James Throttle, Stage Manager),
Stefanie Kluba. (back, l to r) Brendan Ochs,
Kevin O’Brien, Angela Bubash,
Zachary Stefaniak (John Jasper) and Michael Baird.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Gerry Love (Mr. William Cartwright/Chairman), Michael Juncal (Stage Manager and Barkeep/Mr. James Throttle), Zachary Stefaniak (John Jasper/Mr. Clive Paget), Heather Matthews (Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting), Eileen Engel (Rosa Bud/Miss Deirdre Peregrine), Kimberly Still (Helena Landless/Miss Janet Conover), Patrick Kelly (Reverend Crisparkle/Mr. Cedric Moncrieffe), Kelvin Urday (Neville Landless/Mr. Victor Grinstead), Lavonne Byers (The Princess Puffer/Miss Angela Prysock), Eric Woelbling (Durdles/Mr. Nick Cricker), Kevin Connelly (Deputy/Master Nick Cricker), Michael A. Wells (Waiter/Bazzard/Mr. Phillip Bax), Ensemble:  Sara Rae Womack (Wendy/Miss Violet Balfour), Angela Bubash (Beatrice/Miss Florence Gill), Kevin O’Brien (Horace/Mr. Nicholas Michael), Mike Hodges (Mr. Medford Moss), Michael Baird (Mr. Montague Pruitt), Stefanie Kluba (Miss Gwendolyn Pym) and Brendan Ochs (Mr. Harry Sayle).

Creative:
Scenic design by Rob Lippert; costume design by Eileen Engel; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; choreographer, Zachary Stefaniak; stage manager, Justin Been.

Music Hall Royale Band:
Music Director, Chris Petersen; violin, Steve Frisbee; trumpet, A.J. Lane; drums/percussion, Bob McMahon; trombone, Will Reichert; reed, Harrison Rich; acoustic bass, M. Joshua Ryan.

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