A merry band of 19th-century scallywags, miscreants and thespians do their very best to entertain you inside the Music Hall Royale, aka Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey, in the raucous interactive musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
This unique experience results in a jolly good time. The ensemble’s enthusiasm and energy is contagious, and the audience participation aspect is fun.
Because of its structural difficulties — a different ending (400 possibilities!) and other elements determined by each audience — this show is rarely done, and the workload is enormous. But in the capable hands of director Justin Been, who not only has vision but remarkable attention to detail, the production is a delightful romp.
The show-within-a-show framework is based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel of the same name, and Tony-winning Rupert Holmes wrote the music, lyrics and book and arranged the orchestrations to make it a one-of-a-kind experience. He transported Dickens’ colorful characters to a modest Victorian theater. They are portrayed by flamboyant performers.
The inventive original in 1985, commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival, won five Tony Awards out of 11 nominations and an acclaimed 2012 revival garnered five Tony nominations.
Because Dickens died in 1870 before he could complete his tale and did not leave any notes indicating the direction he wanted to go, Holmes structured it so that the audience solves the murder mystery. Votes are taken, and based on the audience verdict, the whodunit is resolved using those characters. Yes, it’s daunting, but the Stray Dog team embraces the challenges with glee.
The robust cast starts off boisterously, greeting patrons and showing off their cheeky wits. They layer on the cheese and ham it up with few boundaries.
A droll Gerry Love excels as the Chairman, a sort of master of ceremonies, trying to keep order and explain the plot developments. His smooth delivery is engaging, and he effectively keeps a complicated plot moving along.
We are introduced to a diverse group, who might be suspects later in the disappearance of the title character.
Zachary Stefaniak is John Jasper, an arrogant music teacher harboring secrets. He’s patterned after a stock dastardly villainous character — or is he? — reminiscent of oldtime melodrama foils like Snidely Whiplash. The role is a good fit for Stefaniak’s big personality, and his exaggerated facial expressions, provoking boos and hisses from the crowd, are funny. He also designed the lively choreography.
The 19-person cast is brimming with good singers and intrepid comic actors, with Belleville’s own Michael A. Wells standing out as Bazzard, who desperately wants more to do on stage. Wells’ sharp timing and playfulness with the audience is matched by his vigorous vocals.
Charismatic Lavonne Byers is a zesty shady lady, The Princess Puffer. Her interpretation of “The Wages of Sin” is hilarious, and “The Garden Path to Hell” is strong as well. Another vivacious standout is Kimberly Still as Helena Landless, a mysterious and exotic foreigner.
Eileen Engel has a beautiful voice, superbly delivering ingenue Rosa Bud’s solos. Engel also handled the demanding costume designs.
Heather Matthews is Alice Nutting, London’s leading male impersonator, portraying both Edwin Drood and Dick Datchery. It is perhaps the most difficult role to pull off well, and she’s good at throwing a diva hissy fit.
Veteran local performers easily slide into their over-the-top roles — Patrick Kelly as The Rev. Mr Crisparkle, Kelvin Urday as Neville Landless, Michael Juncal as the Stage Manager, Brendan Ochs as Harry Sayle, Kevin O’Brien as Horace, and Sara Rae Womack as Wendy.
Impressive in his debut, Eric Woelbling is a funny Durdles, leading a spirited rendition of “Off to the Races,” and young Kevin Connelly demonstrates remarkable poise as the youngest character, Deputy.
Rob Lippert of O’Fallon has again triumphed with a clever yet functional set design, helping the numbers flow, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design — always strong — is particularly noteworthy. Music director Chris Petersen leads a seven-piece band with great aplomb too.
This show is far from easy, but it is apparent how much fun everyone is having, so it looks effortless. Few theatrical evenings are as fun as what is simply called “Drood” (and draw it out for maximum effect).