Candlelight Dinner Playhouse


Apple Tree Theatre Company

There’s a mystery to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, all right. The mystery is how this musical-comedy mediocrity ever got onto a professional stage in the first place. It must have been an awfully lean season in New York when this turkey won five Tony Awards, including three for Rupert Holmes, author of the script, music, and lyrics.

But The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a bona fide Broadway success a few seasons ago–the kind of success that almost always leads to a national tour. In Drood’s case, the tour was cut short by (ironically, considering the show’s murder-mystery plot) the slaying of George Rose by his male lover. Most observers opined that without Rose’s star presence in the role of the show’s master of ceremonies, Drood would fail both critically and commercially–it simply wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

So now that Drood’s regional rights have been made available, it’s fair game for any theater desperate for new product to offer its subscribers. Thus we have two Droods running in the same month–one south, at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, and one at Apple Tree Theatre in north suburban Highland Park. Would that these theaters had learned from the fate of the national tour!

The only thing Drood has going for it is that it offers work to a large cast. The Candlelight and Apple Tree productions combined are providing paychecks (I hope) to more than 35 actor-singer-dancers; most are familiar faces in off-Loop and suburban theater, and it’s good to see them (and the designers and technicians whose work supports them) working.

But what they’re working on is utter rot. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a “high concept” musical whose concept is at once trivial and overdone; a “music hall” show that has about as much to do with traditional music-hall as an airport lounge band has to do with jazz; an “audience participation” piece in which the audience is required not so much to participate in the entertainment as to provide it. Drood is like a picnic: if the family’s all together and determined to have fun, they’ll have fun even if it rains.

Based on Charles Dickens’s last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a show within a show. A tatty music-hall troupe in late-nineteenth-century London is presenting its version of Dickens’s story. (The programs advise us that it’s 1892 at Candlelight but only 1873 at Apple Tree, for whatever that’s worth.) This being Victorian melodrama, the action is campily overplayed, the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss the villain, and the actors are as likely as not to break character to take a bow, repeat a particularly juicy line, engage in lewd banter with the audience, or throw the story away altogether for a sudden, rousingly irrelevant rendition of the company’s trademark tune, “Off to the Races.” Also in the style of some British entertainment of the period, the hero is played by a woman; thus “the Music Hall Royale” presents London’s “leading male impersonator,” Miss Alice Nutting, in the lead role of Mr. Edwin Drood.

Further, since Dickens died before completing his story, the Music Hall Royale actors invite the audience to choose not only who done it but who deduced it. When Dickens’s Drood ends, young Edwin Drood has apparently (but not certifiably) been slain, and a mysterious fellow named Dick Datchery is roaming the streets of the cathedral city of Cloisterham, trying to sift among the numerous clues and motives that surround the case. Drood, it seems, had his share of enemies. The likeliest choice for villain is Edwin’s uncle Mr. Jasper, the town music teacher–something of a cross between Svengali and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–who’s driven by his ambitions for his singing student Rosa Bud (who happens to be Drood’s fiancee) to demonic dalliances with drugs, drink, and a dual personality. But the killer could be Neville Landless, a hot-tempered Ceylonese emigre who was the butt of Drood’s racist-imperialist arrogance (Drood plans to develop Egypt by dismantling the pyramids); or Neville’s tempestuous sister Helena; or that curious curate, Reverend Crisparkle, who once nursed a passion for (and maybe a murderous grudge against) Rosa’s late mother; or the opium-den operator Princess Puffer, “Queen Mother of the Red-Light District”; or Mr. Durdles, a clownish grave digger in the Hamlet mold.

Offered this cast of characters, the audience is called on to vote on who the murderer is, what the true identity of Dick Datchery is, and even which man and which woman will be paired up by fate for the requisite (if illogical) happy ending.

This plot description might actually make the show sound sort of fun, certainly for mystery buffs. But Drood’s execution doesn’t begin to live up to its potential. The mystery is just confusing, not involving; the constant interruption of the story by the Music Hall Royale actors squelches our interest in the Dickens plot, but we aren’t allowed to establish any lasting link with the Music Hall Royale actors either. The songs–a deliberately derivative pastiche of barroom ballads, patter tunes, decadently chromatic love arias, and high-strutting choral numbers–have hardly an ounce of individuality. The lyrics are both witless and badly served by the music–if this score were a team effort, the lyricist and composer would have parted ways long ago. And the show’s structure–the placement of songs within the script, the introduction and development of characters, and so on–is clumsy to the point of tedium. The few good jokes are all age-old groaners that amuse us with their sheer familiarity. (Exchange between Durdles and Mr. Cartwright, the “chairman” of the evening’s festivities: “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” “Where do you usually go?”)

Given the awfulness of the material, Drood is an actor’s show. It succeeded on Broadway because it had a great cast–George Rose, Cleo Laine, Betty Buckley, Howard McGillin, Patti Cohenour, and John Herrera and the intermittent charms of the current productions are likewise attributable to the performers. Each company has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. The bigger-budgeted Candlelight production, directed and choreographed by the reliable team of William Puillinsi and Danny Herman, offers a slicker and more professional ensemble, with plenty of choral presence to liven things up, but the Apple Tree actors, guided by director Gary Griffin and choreographer Marla Lampert, often give more creative and interesting performances on an individual basis. In the role of Chairman Cartwright, a star turn if ever there was one, Candlelight’s Dale Benson comes off like a sly Henry Gibson, with a self-deprecating smoothness that’s better suited to a TV game show than a music hall, while Apple Tree’s Dan Frick is more a blustery bloke in the British style; but neither comes close to the roguish raffishness the role requires. Apple Tree’s Princess Puffer, the redoubtable Alene Robertson, has a commanding voice and a full-bodied presence that makes her seem like a “guest star” in the worst way; Denise Lor, Candlelight’s Princess Puffer, can’t match Robertson vocally but is much more in character. (Neither Robertson nor Lor, though, has the air of mystery embodied in the musky voice of Cleo Laine, who played the part on Broadway.)

As Drood, Candlelight’s Kathy Santen has a boyish physical presence but a too-girlish singing voice; Apple Tree’s Monica Mary McCarthy is more believable in the role, and McCarthy’s climactic temper tantrum as the actress Miss Nutting provides one of the few moments of real comedy in either production.

Candlelight’s Mr. Jasper, the dashing if dastardly music master, is usually played by Dale Morgan; I saw his understudy, Randal Boger, who was superbly vigorous and virile. But I preferred Apple Tree’s Jasper, Matt McDonald, who takes a more playful approach to the character’s menacing madness. McDonald is nicely complemented by Mary Jo Licata, in the ingenue role of Rosa. Her quirky looks and personality and beautiful singing voice (also highlights of National Jewish Theater’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale) make her a performer to watch. The Apple Tree audience took special delight in Vikki Barrett as the snarling, exotic Helena Landless.

Candlelight’s strongest performances come from Larry McCauley, whose razor-sharp timing never fails to draw laughs in the role of Reverend Crisparkle, and from Tom Roland, whose credits say he runs a summer-stock theater in Indiana but who is an absolutely convincing Cockney comic as Durdles. These two seasoned pros come closest to making Candlelight’s Drood, like Broadway’s, a success in spite of itself.