Fort Worth — The party-hearty Charles Dickens himself, who inconveniently “laid down his pen and died” before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, would have been tickled by this right ol’ knees-up of a show—an infectious evening of song, dance and silliness in the British Music Hall style. Stolen Shakespeare Guild is in the zone at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre, and you may feel so English by the end you won’t know whether to go for a pint at the pub or a cuppa (tea, of course) at the Corner House.
Edwin Drood was Rupert Holmes’ first musical—Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival caught Holmes’ cabaret act and suggested he write one—and the show won him the Tony triple crown in 1986: Best Musical, Book and Score. (The still-working Holmes, possibly to his annoyance, is probably best known for the pop-chart hit “Escape”—though we all call it “The Piña Colada Song.”)
Drood is an energetic, tuneful and shamelessly hammy show-within-a show—the premise being that the 19th-century actors of the “Musicale Royale” are putting on their version of the book, with each member of the troupe introduced both as their actor “self” and the character(s) they play. But the Dickens story only goes so far—and the actors will need plenty of help from the audience to decide “whodunnit”…and to choose a Happy Ending (this is musical theater, not the BBC) for the show.
Songwriter Holmes grew up in New York, but had an English mum and extended family (he spent his first six years in the U.K.) who must have taken him to the music halls and a holiday panto or two—because he’s absorbed those old theater styles like a sponge. There’s the Master of Ceremonies or “Chairperson” (the wonderful, twinkly Tom DeWester) who pokes and teases the audience, getting them to shout lines, sing along, and cheer for their favorites; a bit of gender bending with the roles here and there; and the constant stepping out of character that helps us remember it’s all pretend, and all in fun—Dickens Lite, as it were. In the British pantomime tradition—nothing to do with Marcel Marceau—the Lead Boy is always played by an actress, and Lee Jamison is brash and young-manly in her role as Edwin Drood.
Stolen Shakespeare co-founder Jason Morgan directs with showbizzy verve, and has gathered a great group of voices—so many, in fact, that it’s hard to single out just a few. As the Chairperson, DeWester sets the tongue-in-cheeky tone of the show, has a pocket full of tricks, and leads the ensemble (and sometimes the audience) in song with a true, clear-as-a-bell showman’s voice. Lauren Morgan (SSG’s other head, and the music director for Drood) brings a beautiful soprano to the role of Edwin’s fiancée Rosa Bud—and Jamison (as Edwin, remember) holds her own with Morgan in the gorgeously sung duet “Perfect Strangers.” Stan Graner, who plays Edwin’s probably dastardly uncle, John Jasper, is great both in solo (“A Man Could Go Quite Mad”) and ensemble numbers (“Moonfall”), and shares a jaw-dropping Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song with DeWester (“Both Sides of the Coin”).
Karen Matheny (as the mysterious Helena Landless, newly arrived from Ceylon) manages to act and sing without ever breaking character: she maintains her Oriental poses (think Eleanor Bron in A Hard Day’s Night) and “a strange, geographically unplaceable accent” throughout “The Moonfall Quartet” and other ensemble songs. As minor character Bazzard, an “extra” in the troupe who longs for bigger roles, Shane Hurst belts out his woes (“Never the Luck”) in a great voice that made us blink with surprise. And the ensemble as a whole does consistently great work in the big numbers—“Off to the Races,” “Settling Up The Score” and others.
The show’s pre-recorded music has a nice small-orchestra feel and works surprisingly well, though it occasionally stomps on our ability to hear the lyrics. Stefanie Glenn’s choreography adds wit, sparkle and crowd control to any number of ensemble scenes, including a quarrelsome dinner party (“No Good Can Come from Bad”) where the diners keep up a mad musical chairs game, dancing from one seat to another in their agitation. The set (also by the Morgans) has a handsome, period feel, with a curving, floral-patterned proscenium arch draped in Victorian velvet, and the floor painted to resemble the well-trod boards of an old theater. And the costume crew has done some inventive stuff with a cheerful, Dickensian mix of styles, textures and pattern. (The Indian-inspired costumes for Matheny and Alex Krus as the Landless siblings are especially grand.)
Maybe it takes a frontal assault to bring the Brits out of their British reserve: that might be the explanation for why England needed shows like this, with a “Chairperson” insisting the audience has to come out of their shells and be part of the fun. Whatever the history, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a light-hearted look at a noisy, comical kind of theater we don’t see much anymore—and a great start for Stolen Shakespeare’s ninth season of shows.