Hurts Like the Dickens

Sitting through an unintelligible Edwin Drood might be hazardous to your health

Across America, December traditions include It's a Wonderful Life on TV and A Christmas Carol at the local regional theater. Alas for those who require an annual dose of Dickens, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis turned a cold shoulder to A Christmas Carol years ago. But this month Dickens is back onstage -- or at least hovering over it -- in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, an innocuous holiday production geared to the family trade.

Drood is lightly, loosely based on Dickens' final novel. But darn it all, when the author died in 1870, he hadn't completed this tale of intrigue and jealousy. So as conceived by Rupert Holmes, the show's sole author, the audience is allowed to vote on how the plot should wrap up.

Drood is a play within a play, a musical within a musical. The year is 1892, and we are seated in the Music Hall Royale, about to be entertained by a troupe of undisciplined acolytes of the thespian profession. Even before the show begins, the evening gets off to a jolly start thanks to the engaging scenic design by John Ezell, affectionately lit by Peter E. Sargent. Gas-lit chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The ever-dour Queen Victoria is stiffly seated in her royal box, while a cardboard cutout of Charles Dickens observes the proceedings from above the crumbling proscenium arch.

Without warning, and with the house lights still up, the cast vaults into the auditorium to noisily bid us welcome. Amid all this cacophony, the company's young stage manager takes to the boards to encourage viewers to turn off their cell phones and unwrap their hard candy. These by-now-obligatory pre-show announcements are often tuned out as quickly as seat-belt instructions on airplanes. But a viewer is well advised to heed Ben Nordstrom's intrepid stage manager, because his announcement proves to be one of the high points of the evening. Nordstrom is so animated that it's hard to tell whether he's over-eager for the show to begin or needs to visit the lavatory. Whichever, his is a crisp and clear manner of presentation that others would do well to emulate.

Once the show officially kicks in, you can pretty much forget about following the plot. Too many song lyrics are unintelligible. In the program notes, scenic designer Ezell describes Holmes' lyrics as "fiendishly clever," but the viewer never has the opportunity to judge for himself. Even the dialogue scenes are difficult to follow. Several members of the ensemble have been encouraged by director Victoria Bussert to grimace, pose and then hit every third or fourth word with a sledgehammer. Yes, we get the idea that these are hammy poseurs. But it takes a really good actor to pretend to be really bad. After a while, a viewer can be forgiven for giving up and tuning out. As another Holmes might have suggested, it's "elementary" that if we're expected to follow the threads of a mystery, the story should be presented with a modicum of clarity.

Among the fifteen-person cast, who seem to be having a grand time amusing each other, Pamela Myers is ever reliable. As Princess Puffer, a variation on Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett, Puffer operates an opium den "below the street and beneath contempt." Myers' wry rendition of "The Wages of Sin" is Drood at its most droll. Another highlight: "Perfect Strangers," the score's sole standout ballad, is attractively performed by Rosa Bud (Kelly Sullivan) and her fiancé Edwin (Becca Ayers; one of the show's conceits is that the title role is performed by a female in male garb).

In the pivotal role of the master of ceremonies, John Sloman is simply out of his element. Despite muttonchops that drape his face like window curtains, there is nothing remotely British about him. One senses that he would be more comfortable cavorting through an all-American, hiss-the-villain melodrama like Love Rides the Rails than a British vaudeville.

By the time the mystery has been resolved, the evening has generated a lot of good will and high spirits, but not much more. Indeed, at the opening-night performance the only true mystery was this: Midway through Act One, what triggered the fire alarm that forced a 25-minute evacuation of the theater? During the intermission, one of the staffers was heard to exclaim, "Never a dull moment at the Rep."

She got that wrong.

 
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