The Mystery of Edwin Drood (book and music by Rupert Holmes) may sell itself as a saucy, interactive murder mystery musical in which (fun fun) the audience gets to choose the killer each evening. But about three quarters of the way through the show, it becomes apparent this marketing hook is the least enjoyable thing about the show. At least it is in this production, brought to us by Obsidian Theater in association with SRO Productions.
Sure, the choose-your-own-adventure-type ending, which allows us to weigh in on Charles Dickens’s unfinished final novel, is a cute idea that affords some nice audience participation. It’s just that with such knock-'em-out performances by a talented cast full of young new faces, the comically astute direction of Rachel Landon, the buzzy choreography of Landon and Liz Tinder, and Elizabeth Wilson’s musical direction, which highlights all 11 performers’ best talents, this is a show far greater than the gimmick it sells itself on.
This is the kind of silly but oh so smartly executed show that can, for a brief moment, help us forget the day’s troubles (even on a day when the news claws at your heart) and just laugh. Well, mostly laugh. The 1986 show, winner of five Tony Awards, isn’t without its culturally insensitive moments that, glossed over two decades ago, become undeniably squirm-worthy in our present state.
An opening salvo offering to sell off the show’s beskirted and bloomer-exposed women for a night to any single lonely men in the crowd lands with a thud. More problematic is the narrative treatment of two characters from Ceylon, Neville and Helena Landless (Darry Hearon and Carian Parker). It’s degradingly assumed the pair doesn’t speak English, they’re often accused of being heathenistic hotheads or “fiery,” and Neville is belittled as an inferior "other" throughout the show. Part of the original Dickens text, for sure, and Holmes’s musical. But it's such a shame that Landon couldn’t find a way to make these misogynist/racist slurs more than simply punch lines to be giggled at.
Fortunately, we do have so much else to delight in. The story is simple. Edwin Drood (Sarah Myers, yes, a woman playing a man as so dictated in the script) is to marry Rosa Budd (Elizabeth Curtin), a match made for the couple when they were just babes. Rosa, however, is the object of lustful, aggressively creepy and unwanted attention from Edwin's uncle John Jasper (Seth Cunningham). Rosa has also captured the eye of Neville, who has recently moved from Ceylon, and with whom she is far more intoxicated, much to the chagrin of her fiancée, Drood.
The mystery’s afoot when, at the end of Act 1, on a stormy Christmas Eve, Drood goes missing. With Dickens unable to finish the plot (he died before the novel was completed), we are left to decide who the murderer shall be. But as mentioned, it’s not the voting that’s the fun part. Truth be told, much of Act 2, where we get to decide the fate of the show, pales in comparison to the fun we’ve had in Act 1.
A fourth-wall-breaking narrator (Danny Dyer), tongue firmly planted in cheek, guides us through the action, introducing us to the characters and alerting us to the evidence to be mindful of. Somewhere between being utterly coddled and subtle hat-tipping, the narrator goes out of his way to make sure we have all the info we need. A crucial opium den scene gets replayed for us a second time, to side-splitting delight thanks to Langton’s wonderfully weird staging that turns actors into wormy, swaying creatures, so that we can take special note of the clues offered.
But even if you don’t fancy playing detective, there’s plenty to keep you transfixed in the singing and acting of this tremendously talented cast. Among the performers, special mention must go to Curtin as Rosa Budd. Yes, for her terrifically cheeky, "don’t hate me because I’m beautiful" acting, but oh, that voice! Whether in near-operatic numbers or typical Broadway-like duets, Curtin’s performance will hit you deep in your belly, in that spot reserved for angel voices to move us. As Drood, Myers has a more jaunty role to play, narratively and musically, and she does both with effortless fluidity that stands out at every turn.
But if there is one distinct reason to go see this show, there’s no question that it’s to marvel at Cunningham as evil Uncle Jasper. We’ve seen him in supporting roles at SRO before to some success, but here, finally, is his moment to shine. Dominating every scene with a genteel, calculated, cool demeanor intermixed with a Hyde-like snorting-and-huffing, animalistic personality, he just can’t stay under wraps, Cunningham utterly steals the show. He’s funny, he’s disturbing, he’s frightening and he’s campy as hell. He’s the bad boy we all love to hate but adore nonetheless. And he plays it with utmost commitment.
Just watch Cunningham undulate in the background, waiting to pounce into action. Observe him sitting among the audience, interacting with the crowd, making us laugh with his naughtiness. This is an actor who knows how to be “on,” and we love him for it. Oh, and yeah, the kid’s got a hella voice to boot. Whether in soaring ballads, poppy, plot-moving songs or the musical’s show-stopping Gilbert and Sullivan-like wordy number, Cunningham impresses with his vocal strength and range.
After all this fun in Act 1, then, it’s a bit of a letdown when things get off to a slow start in Act 2. Superfluous songs abound and our participation comes far later than we expect. But even though some of the air is let out of the balloon, it all works out in the end. We vote (with some fun imploring from the cast), we feel "heard," for whatever that’s worth, and we are firmly back on board for the murder conviction and subsequent happy ending the show provides for us.
It is an interesting experiment, however. It wasn’t so much our vote’s outcome that counted, but rather that we had a chance to chime in. And then that only mattered because we were engaged and entertained enough to want to participate. A lesson for or against modern election processes? Perhaps. A lesson that gimmicks only work onstage if you have the chops to back it up? Most definitely.
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Finally, as we close the books on yet another successful review of an SRO production (winners of many Houston Theater awards), we need to acknowledge artistic director (and director/co-choreographer of this show) Rachel Landon, who is leaving Houston once this production closes.
Under her leadership, and her decision to combine the company with the drama-focused Obsidian Theater, SRO has emerged as the place to go to witness superlative, intimate space musicals that can compete with any big-budget show in town. By casting local area performers, Landon has made SRO a Houston-bred success, showcasing and often introducing us to the incredible and diverse talent we have right here in our own backyard.
We wish Landon well in her future endeavors and keep our fingers crossed that SRO will remain a place where we can not only see great musical theater up close, but a place where we can continue to celebrate fresh talents and glimpse the future stars of Houston stages and beyond.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through October 14 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For tickets, visit obsidiantheater.org or call 832-889-7837. $37.50-$27.50.