Barker’s Season Finishes Strong with the Mystery of Edwin Drood

32214796_1686085821511759_3565998822020612096_nThere’s a mystery afoot at The Players at Barker Playhouse and what’s keeping people buzzing around their latest musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, isn’t necessarily “Who Dun’ It?”, but “How Do I Get In?” According to general manager Bill Applegate, since they formally announced the Tony-Award winning musical as the closing show in their 109th Season, people have been on the phone to purchase tickets – and as is the case with Barker Playhouse, that means increased memberships as well as ticket sales. Having opened last week to full houses, tickets have indeed disappeared completely for Drood, which is closing the Players’ season with a sold-out run.

The award-winning musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes is getting a high-spirited and entertaining production by the Players under the sure-handed gaze of director Joan Dillenbeck and meticulous musical direction of pianist Joe A. Carvalho. Holmes is no stranger to crafting a nifty pop song, having penned the very popular “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in the mid-70s. While Drood was his first crack at writing book and lyrics as well as music for a show, the resulting work was so well-received that it garnered Holmes three Tony Awards, winning for Best Book, Best Original Score and Best Musical.

The Players’ intimate Benefit Street theater (currently seating just over 90 people per performance) makes for the perfect setting of the show-within-a-show set in a lively 1890s English music hall. Holmes sets up the campy and fun premise early-on, inviting audiences to celebrate each music hall actor as they are introduced as their main characters and to react to the “bad guy” characters with typical pantomime boos and hisses. Of course, the play is most well-known for the audience’s second act job of voting on the murderer’s identity at each performance.

Our host and guide for the evening is The Chairman (a winning Dennis L. Bouchard) who introduces the love triangle of the story, the virtuous Rosa Budd (Rebecca Kilcline), her fiancé Edwin Drood (Erin Malcolm) and the villain of the piece, the grandly insane John Jasper (well played with more than a bit of melodrama by Jeff C. Davis) who wants young Rosa all to himself.

In the tradition of the Victorian Music Hall, the male role of Drood is a “breech role,” meant to be played with appropriate swagger by an actress. Taking full advantage of the convention, Holmes has written some of his most beautiful melodies for the women and Malcolm shines in her duet “Perfect Strangers” with the luminous Kilcline as songbird Rosa. Kilcline proves herself to be a delightful vocalist early on in the show, beautifully handling the smoldering “Moonfall” with precision and depth.

When Malcom’s Drood turns up missing and presumed dead before the end of the first act, we are left with a whole roster of colorful characters to suspect, each bearing a mysterious reason for wanting to make him disappear. Leading the group is The Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (played with trademark timing by the funny Roger Lemelin), who has more then a few secrets up his clerical sleeve, and the exotic brother and sister comic duo of Helena and Neville Landless (Leslie Nevola and David Schillinger.) Nevola not only nails her character’s “geographically untraceable accent,”  but also brings a strong, colorful singing voice to the duets and group numbers.

One of the audience favorites the evening I attended was Elizabeth R. Messier, putting in a star-turn as Princess Puffer, the saucy, secretive (and surprise!) sensitive purveyor of opium. Her second act ballads, “The Garden Path to Hell” and “Puffer’s Revelation,” were heartfelt and well-delivered. A welcome sight on local stages again is the inimitable JP Cottam, whose comic turn as the hard drinking Durdles is effortlessly funny.

Barker is truly fortunate to have triple-threat Michael Maio in their ranks, both onstage and off. Maio’s polished choreography for the show, while economical and precise, truly elevated the group numbers. With spot-on comic timing, his performance of Bazzard’s first act ballad, “Never the Luck,” was a joyful (albeit bittersweet) treat.

Set designer Dan Clement has crafted a neatly functional multi-purpose Victorian music hall stage setting, with movable panels that open and close to reveal enough detail to portray the many locations of Cloisterham. Well-lit by designer Ron Allen and costumed with savvy color-theory for better character insight by designer Jillian Eddy, the production’s 20-some actor-singer-dancers move effortlessly throughout the various streets, sitting rooms, opium dens and crypts of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. This is a show where the ensemble contributes greatly to the production, and hats off to the solid performances turned in by the Citizens of Cloisterham, Holly B. Applegate, Calista D’Elia, Lisa M. Babbitt, Karen Gail Kessler, Emma Locke, Court Stafford, Erich Dethlefsen, Sam O’Donnell and Andrea Hellman.

The full run of The Mystery of Edwin Drood produced by The Players at Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD is sold out. For more information on how you can become a member and receive advance notices of productions and events, please call 401-273-0590 or visit playersri.org

 

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