Before his death, Charles Dickens was working on a novel titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The real mystery, as it turned out, would be what Dickens’ plan for the ending was, as he died before he could finish it. Scholars have pored over the incomplete manuscript and letters Dickens wrote to determine what course the story would have taken, but the reality is we will never know what he intended. And then, around 1985, popular songwriter Rupert Holmes (a curiously perfect last name for someone adapting a mystery novel) decided to make it into a musical. Now, the Norton Singers are bringing the tale of murder, jealousy and lust to the Weber Theater’s stage at Wheaton College.
Rest assured, though there is a murder at the center of the show, it is, in fact, a mostly lighthearted and vast departure from the rather bleak novel. This is mostly attributed to the influence of pantomime and Victorian-style music hall performance. The mystery itself is actually the play within the play, performed by a rambunctious troupe of actors. In other words, each performer is playing an actor who is, in turn, playing a character. Even the ensemble members have opted to take on stage names for their music hall personas.
The scene is set before the curtain rises by members of the cast who come out and chat up the audience. They introduce themselves and explain where and when you are and exactly what’s going on this evening – because yes, it does require explanation. This is where in-character improvisation comes into play, as they gossip about other characters and react with confusion when a voice seemingly from beyond asks the audience to turn off some mysterious, infernal device known as a “cell phone.” In fact, throughout the show, members of the cast will sit in the audience when not on stage, and may offer their commentary during parts of the show. During intermission, there are a few impromptu (and interactive) performances of period-appropriate songs.
Alright, let’s address the elephant in the room … er, review: how can you make a musical out of something without an ending? Did Holmes just make one up? No, Holmes did not make just one up. He made up more than 40. Which one will be performed here? Well, that depends on you, the audience. Once the show reaches the point where Dickens stopped writing, the audience votes on the identity of the murderer (if, indeed, a murder took place), the true identity of Detective Dick Datchery and who pairs up as lovers (the options for this one are, regrettably, all heterosexual).
To guide you through this unique and wild experience is the charismatic Chairman (Greg Geer). In addition to leading the voting process, he’ll introduce you to each actor as they appear, point out clues as to who the murderer is and generally be entertaining.
The ill-fated title character, Edwin Drood, is played by Alice Nutting (Val Cabral) in the “lead boy” tradition of pantomime, where the leading man is played by a woman in drag. Drood is a British imperialist seeking to steal stones from the Egyptian pyramids to build a road across the desert. He has a rather abrasive personality, as evidenced by the slew of suspects who might have done him in.
The candidate who seems most likely is his own uncle, John Jasper, played by Clive Paget (Christian Roulleau). In addition to being, well, evil, Jasper harbors an obsession with Drood’s fiancée and his own music pupil in a very Phantom of the Opera-esque relationship, Miss Rosa Bud, played by Deirdre Peregrine (Abigail Bradie). Miss Bud is a pretty and innocent young woman, but is she really as innocent as she seems?
The Landless twins, Helena, played by Janet Conover (Aleksandra Donato), and Neville, played by Victor Grinstead (Andrew Coutermarsh), have just come to town from the distant land of Ceylon. Neville is immediately smitten with Rosa, which makes him an immediate rival of Edwin Drood. Helena is sharp as a tack and undyingly loyal to her brother. The twins are in the charge of Reverend Crisparkle, played by Cedric Moncrieffe (Brian Wolfe-Leonard). A kindly man of the cloth, he had once hoped to marry Rosa’s deceased mother. He may not be as kindly as he appears.
Princess Puffer, played by Angela Prysock (Janet Ferreri), is the madam of an opium den that John Jasper frequents. Seemingly, she has nothing to do with the people of Cloisterham … or does she? Durdles, played by Mr. Nick Cricker (Seamus Corbett), is the city’s crypt keeper. An offbeat, often drunk man — who knows what he may be capable of? Finally, young aspiring playwright Bazzard, played by Philip Bax (Bill Stiles), craves his moment in the spotlight. Perhaps a murder may accomplish just that.
Drood has certainly carved out a place for itself in theater history, what with its unique use of audience participation. It was also one of the few musicals to be entirely written – book, music and lyrics – and orchestrated by one person. However, the music is rather lackluster and forgettable, though very well done by this talented cast. Among the numbers that stood out for me are “Ceylon,” a commentary on British imperialism that features some Indian-inspired choreography, “No Good Can Come From Bad,” set around a dining table as the action is about to come to a head, and the patter song “Both Sides of the Coin.” Most of what made these numbers stand out is the choreography by Melissa Franklin, though I would be hard-pressed to recall the tune of any of them. The characters feel underdeveloped, which is not entirely surprising, considering there is no singular ending, meaning their character arc is different every night.
The design elements are perhaps the highlight of this production. Kathryn Ridder’s costumes are simply phenomenal, from Helena’s Middle Eastern garb to Rosa’s Victorian finery to Durdles’ kooky look. Corbett Thursby’s sets are also fantastic. In particular, the restored 1870 organ shows his commitment to the craft. Also to be commended is their dialect coach, Marianne Phinney. There are a slew of different British accents in the show, as well as the Landless’ South Asian-inflected accents, and they all sounded pretty good, as far as I can tell.
If you’re looking to sit back and simply take in a show, this is decidedly not the show for you. But those who like a good game of Clue or are true Dickens aficionados with a genuine interest in his unfinished final work, this may be worth checking out, if only for the experience of “solving” the mystery and finishing what Dickens started, even if not in the way he expected. For all its faults, it certainly is a musical theater experience unlike any other.
The Norton Players’ production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs at Wheaton College’s Weber Theater, 26 E Main St, Norton, Mass, through June 22. For tickets, visit nortonsingers.com