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The Mystery of Edwin Drood ***

         A Mad Caper Finds Its Way to Broadway, Once Again
Will Chase, Stephanie J. BlockWill Chase, Stephanie J. Block              By Isa Goldberg
There is lots of faux fun to be had watching "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." A take-off on British music hall entertainment of the mid 1800s that carried on for nearly a century, this kind of humor clearly doesn't go out with a whimper. In fact, the two and a half hours of Rupert Holmes' musical involves the raucous, bawdy shenanigans of an acting troupe which is staging a murder mystery in The Music Hall Royale into which Studio 54 is now transformed.

Holmes, the purveyor of entertainment driven diversions, garnered three Tony Awards (book, music and lyrics) when the musical premiered in 1985. More recently, his musical "Curtains" starring David Hyde Pierce received mixed reviews for its story of an American acting company performing a musical in which a real murder takes place. Please don't take that as a spoiler alert. The murder case in "Drood" is not predictable. As the actors tell us, the musical is based on Charles Dickens' novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," left unfinished because of the author's sudden death. At the point where Dickens left off, the audience is brought in to vote on the ending. There are several possible outcomes to the murder as there are to the central romance. The night I saw the play the audience voted that the central romance was between Master Nick Cricker, played by the 14-year-old Nicholas Barasch and Chita Rivera, who asks him, "So you want me to teach you the lay of the land?" The comedic send off heralds the play's happy ending.

Indeed, what makes this revival worth seeing is Ms. Rivera's performance as The Princess Puffer, the grand dame of a house of ill repute. Rivera projects amazing magnanimity, energy, and ease. Embodying a history of American musical theater, from "West Side Story" to "Zorba" to "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Rivera is in and of herself the quintessential metatheatrical experience for which the play strives. "Who am I and what am I?" she asks, as well any audience member will watching these actors play characters in a play within a play. It's a whirligig of transforming experiences.

Similarly, Jim Norton as the company's Chairman and the play's master of ceremonies embodies the sense of theatrical presence that ignites the play's charms. One of the theater's cherished raconteurs, Norton fulfills those expectations here, even when he forgets which role he's playing. The audience, too, may become dumbfounded by the sheer size of the cast and the multiplicity of roles including John Jasper (Will Chase), the choir master and a man with a split personality who, secretly enamored of his student Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), appears to the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) as the embodiment of Satan.

Of course, the point of "Drood" is not the appropriateness of character or its logical development. To that end, Stephanie J. Block is the cross dresser who plays Edwin Drood, to whom Rosa is engaged. Their duet, "Perfect Strangers," written for two sopranos shows them both off beautifully, especially Wolfe, who has a gorgeous voice.

Directed by Scott Ellis, the production at times looks merely self-conscious rather than transcendent. Its use of pantomime, the iconography of gestures, the baseness of humor, and constant winking at the audience are really over the top.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is performed at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street) through February 10th. For tickets call 212-719-1300, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org, or stop by the box office.
Photography: Joan Marcus

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