I guess we're running out of musicals worth reviving. That's what has been going through my mind recently as I've contemplated recent announcements of upcoming musical revivals on Broadway. I mean, Pump Boys and Dinettes? Is that really a show that's clamoring for another chance at the big time? And don't even get me started on the dread prospect of another Jekyll & Hyde. To paraphrase a former colleague, Oy and his famous gevalt.
And now, of course, there's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, currently enjoying a far better Broadway revival than the show itself deserves, under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company. I saw Drood during its original New York run 25 or so years ago. Even then, a mere sprite of a showtune queen, I knew that Drood was no great shakes in the quality department. Yes, it won the Tony Award for best musical, but against what competition? Song and Dance, Big Deal, and Tango Argentino. Not exactly a stellar slate of all-time greats.
What makes Drood a pleasant-enough diversion has very little to do with the actual book, music and lyrics, all by Rupert Holmes. No, whatever fun is to be had at Drood comes more from the show-within-a-show framing device, the English music hall setting, and the inspired device of having the audience vote on who the killer may have been. Holmes was presumably responsible for these devices, but his inspiration seems to have ended there.
The score comprises a series of bland, meandering ballads (e.g. "Moonfall"), rhythmic but tuneless character sketches ("A Man Could Go Quite Mad"), and generic uptempo crowd-pleasers ("Off to the Races"). And the book, which admittedly is supposed to be creaky, with cardboard characters who mimic types from the music-hall genre, accomplishes little more than setting up the scenario, introducing the suspects, and providing flimsy justification for all the various possible permutations of murderer/detective/lovers/etc. Holmes provides little in the way of credible character motivation. (Why, for instance, does Edwin take an instant dislike to Neville Landless, antagonizing Neville in a way that nothing else in Edwin's character would seem to justify?) In short, the show is long on concept, but short on delivery.
Thankfully, director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle have whipped up a lively and engaging production of a piece that admittedly was creaky from day one. The staging here is snappy, the tempi are brisk, and the audience doesn't have time to stop and notice the mediocrity of the musical itself. Ellis and Carlyle make rousing show-stoppers out of "Both Sides of the Coin" and "Don't Quit While You're Ahead," although "Settling up the Score" was uncharacteristically unfocused and lethargic. Anna Louizos (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) give the production a warm, sumptuous, suitably Dickensian feel.
For Broadway insiders, the main draw here is likely to be the outstanding cast, which features some of the best performers currently working on Broadway. Chief among these pros is Will Chase as John Jasper. Chase has been a dependable leading man for years, particularly in his numerous gigs at Encores, but here he gets a chance to show his chops as the scene-stealing comic villain, and he's a hoot.
Likewise delightfully animated are Andy Karl as Neville Landless and the almost unrecognizable Jessie Mueller (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Into the Woods) as his sister Helena. If there's any justice in this world (and now that Obama has a second term, I'm starting to think there might be), Jessie Mueller is going to be a big, big star. And it's always a pleasure to encounter Tony winner Jim Norton on the boards. Norton plays the "the Chairman," a sort of emcee/compere role, and Norton wisely underplays the role to great comic effect. (Of course, I mean no disrespect to the late George Rose and his delightful scenery chewing in the original production. Both approaches worked just fine from where I sat.)
I was slightly disappointed in the otherwise legendary Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer and the normally reliable Stephanie J. Block as Drood. Of course, at this point in Chita's career, all she needs to do is simply show up. (I mean, she's 79, for Pete's sake. Power to her, huh?) I found our Chita just a little bit breathless and marble-mouthed during "Wages of Sin," although her "Garden Path to Hell" was chilling. And I think fierce girl Stephanie may just be the victim of a thinly written part. I seem to recall that Betty Buckley wasn't all that much more distinctive when she originated the role. And, thankfully, each of their respective renditions of "Writing on the Wall" gave me goosebumps.
So, on the whole, more than worth your while if you're in the city between now and February 10th. The show isn't much in the way of genuinely high quality musical theater, but there's plenty of fun to be had in the lively staging, the rousing sense of high spirits, and the cast that's about as good as any you'd be likely to find on Broadway. Or anywhere else.