The 1986 Tony for Best Musical went to a show based on the unfinished Charles Dickens’ novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and although I am a huge fan of all things Broadway and musicals, this show slipped under my radar. But I was able to rectify that oversight with Blank Theatre Company’s production of Rupert Holmes’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Going into the production I knew none of the songs or storylines, but as a fan of mysteries, I was enthusiastic.
The basic plot stays true to Dickens’ original, but the play-within-a-play context makes the story difficult to follow. John Jasper is a “tell-tale heart”-type of music teacher who has fallen in love with one of his pupils, Rosa Bud. The #MeToo aspect and “Gaslight” allusion of this exchange could’ve served as a timely adjustment to this thirty-plus-year-old play but that angle is unexplored. The conflict focuses instead on Rosa’s engagement to Edwin Drood, Jasper’s young nephew, and this is where the plot thickens. Or at least where the plot should thicken but forgettable songs and befuddling narrative suck the fun and suspense right out of the theater.
“Edwin Drood” is a comedy but the over-rehearsed dialogue and overuse of melodramatic satire left me feeling like I was watching a rehearsal of a play-within-a-play. The actors are clearly talented and have well-trained voices (although some of the chorus parts sounded amateurish). Chase Heinemann’s John Jasper provides an energetic boost with his nimble comedic timing and genuine deep-dark feeling. Aaron Mann and Brian Warner don’t get to bring out their characters, Durdles and Bazzard, until late in the first act, although when they finally do they bring authentic laughter with them. Director Danny Kapinos attempts an immersive, music-hall experience but ultimately “Edwin Drood” doesn’t contain enough suspense to draw audiences into the world of the play.
The production design left something to be desired. When Rosa sings “Moonfall,” a large moon is projected in the background. The backstage quality of the set is held together by the band’s presence onstage. Though a bass and piano fit well on the stage, the strong voices and intensity of the score demanded fuller musical accompaniment. The scrappy, thrift-store costumes could’ve formed a complementary pairing to the behind-the-scenes set but the unshapely fit of the garments and confounding characterizations were distracting and confusing. Edwin Drood, a case study in white-male privilege, is rendered as a dandy. Princess Puffer, a drug-den madam, is attired in palazzo pants and jazz shoes. One costume with distinctive qualities was that of Miss Rosa Bud, the love interest. With a refreshing use of texture and composition, Rosa’s pale pink ensemble matched the character and made a nice transition into the first act’s dream sequence. The pervasive clash of design elements could’ve been constructed into a “Noises Off”-style controlled chaos but the lack of detailed structure left it merely chaotic.
Walking into the theater, there were large groups of friends as well as people running into folks they hadn’t seen in a while, lending a sense of community to the space. I felt as if I had come back to my high school or college days when seeing a show meant supporting your friends. This association left me hopeful for the choose-your-own-adventure to come. But only the lack of maturity carried over. “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” lacks energy and a sense of fun. A musical isn’t a concert: you can’t just sing the songs. Whatever the show, it ought to say something about the world outside of the theater. (Hayley Osborn)
Blank Theatre Company, 5451 North Broadway, blanktheatrecompany.org, $15-$25. Through December 29.