Theater review: ‘Drood’ a mirthful musical mystery with multiple endings at the Goodspeed

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You can call it the Droodspeed. Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood transformed the Goodspeed Opera House into a British music hall of the 1870s.

The front of the balcony area in the auditorium has been adorned with small portraits and designs in a genteel Victorian style. Antique-style footlights have been installed at the front of the stage, which has been extended so it’s deeper and rounder. To make way for the performers, the live band has been moved to a balcony at the back of the stage.

This is more than window dressing. The music hall environment informs the entire production, from the melodramatic pauses complete with heightened ominous piano chords to the bawdy comic songs delivered as there were audience members in the cheap seats ready to pelt the performer with rotten vegetables if the song isn’t good enough.

How will ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ be solved at the Goodspeed? Holmes lets the audience decide

The songs are more than good enough. Holmes’ has concocted tunes that sound true to the late 19th-century music hall setting but also work as Broadway showtunes. Liz McCartney as the bordello madame Princess Prysock delivers a relatively dainty rendition of “The Wages of Sin” that lifts it into Rodgers & Hammerstein territory, while the fast-paced pattern song “Both Sides of the Coin” is given the frivolous formality of pure Gilbert & Sullivan.

Most of the songs are delivered just as they would be in a music hall, with the performers front and center, acknowledging (and sometimes mocking) the crowd and setting up their numbers as if these performers are better known than the roles they are playing. That’s how the show intends it: Each cast member is playing a member of an 1870s London theater troupe who is in turn playing a role in the premiere of a new play based on Charles Dickens’ final novel.

Dickens died in June 1870 and had already begun publishing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in serial form but had only written about half of it and left no clues as to its ending. This is all explained in the musical, which announces when it has run out of Dickens’ plot and lets the audience decide the rest. The audience is polled as accurately as possible and the results of the voting are performed by the actors.

It’s no small trick. Forty of the 140 pages of the published script for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” consist of alternate endings for the play’s final scenes. The audience votes on several big revelations concerning the cast, including which of the characters has been masquerading as the mysterious Dick Datchery, which of them has murdered Drood and which of them is romantically linked to another one of them.

Keeping all that voting interesting to the audience is one obstacle, helped by the fact that the cast is in the dark about the results themselves and has to mentally prepare for perhaps being chosen as a lover, murderer or strange interloper.

This is where the focused music hall puffery of the production helps. We accept these performers as the cliched melodrama characters they’re playing but also as energetic, somewhat desperate actors willing to amuse us at any cost. It helps that the Goodspeed cast is filled with experienced showbiz professionals who bring a wide range of experience to these intentionally incomplete roles.

We can gauge the effectiveness of this music hall-centric staging against “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” as it was done at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2019. That was a similarly straightforward staging of the musical. UConn’s version was more sprawling on a wider stage. Goodspeed’s is crisp and centralized, with the performers prancing to those footlights, doing their bit and moving aside for whoever’s next.

It also helps that the cast is equal parts young and fresh and old and grizzled. The older, seasoned performers dirty themselves up beautifully in rumpled clothes and scuffed-up hats. They also know how to command a stage.

At the same time, we can be very thankful that this is one production of a Dickens work that exercises restraint when it comes to overdone comical British accents. The characters may have ruddy faces or huge sideburns or thick wool waistcoats or exaggerated corsets, but they happily refrain from acting like incomprehensible Cockney cartoons. The humor comes from other places.

The welcome lack of overacting is evident throughout the show. The cast pins the needles on Dickensian parody but happily does not blow out the meters.

In the original Broadway production 40 years ago, George Rose played the show’s ubiquitous narrator/host, known only as Chairman of the Music Hall Royale, as a boisterous ringmaster. The great Lenny Volpe — the Broadway veteran who’s played everything from the Wizard in “Wicked” to Ed Koch in “Mayor” and whose previous Goodspeed appearances include the captain of “Show Boat,” Scrooge in “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” and the Baker in “The Baker’s Wife” – plays the Chairman as kindly, genial, flustered and even soft-spoken at times. His lack of bombast lets the actors who are stuck with the more stereotyped roles (such as Paul Adam Schaefer, who is playing conniving villain John Jasper) modulate them a little. This is a show largely defined by shouting and cheering, so any touch of nuance or depth is welcome.

The musical maintains its carefully calculated anything-can-happen feel. Holmes, a mystery maven who published the bestselling novel “Murder Your Employer: The McMaster Guide to Homicide” last year and has several other mystery books and plays to his credit, makes sure the eventual solution to the mystery matters, even if it’s open-ended.

Holmes also keeps things light and funny even when they threaten to get bogged down by technical issues like explaining the plot or having someone rush off to change costumes.

A lot of the comedy is right there in Holmes’ script, but director Rob Ruggiero adds some wonderfully silly sight gags, generally involving lively dancing.

There’s also a lot of room for improv in the closing count-the-votes scene. It’s a great pleasure to see a stalwart character actor like Paul Slade Smith (a West Hartford native who wrote the comedy “Unnecessary Farce” done by Playhouse on Park in 2016) get to limber up a little with some great ad-libs while also staying in character as the stodgy cleric Reverend Crisparkle.

The cast is full of strong talents who can draw you into the world of the murder mystery but also exist beyond it. This is especially true of Jetta Juriansz and Levin Valayil, who must sidestep old-world stereotypes of Indians during the British colonization of that country, Riley Noland who brings confidence and independence and beauty to what could easily be a vapid ingenue type and Mamie Parris (last seen at the Goodspeed in Ruggiero’s reworking of “A Grand Night for Singing”) in the title role of Edwin Drood, a character whom we are told is being played by one of England’s leading male impersonators.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” should be done more often. It’s clearly a lot of fun for the performers. For the audience, the musical behaves very differently now after decades of reality shows and the post-COVID-shutdown joy of being able to raise your hand and have your voice heard in a public place.

Even for those of us who would rush out of a theater screaming rather than get caught in a bout of “audience participation,” there’s not much harm in raising your hand or clapping loudly or screaming “Edwin Drooood!” when asked. For others in the room, it’s highly enjoyable. It even changes the plot of the show and adds extra laughs to it.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” runs through June 2 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 6:30 p.m. $30-$86.