Like Sherlock Holmes, Rupert Holmes is Brit-born, but, unlike Sherlock, he creates mysteries rather than solves them — and the one he created (with songs!) out of Charles Dickens' famously unfinished — indeed, last — novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, gives "audience participation" a new meaning: We decide whoDroodit.
The Tony-winning Best Musical of 1986 that resulted from Holmes' Tony-winning book and score returned to Broadway Nov. 13 at Studio 54 — but not so you'd notice. That former den of iniquity and current Roundabout arena has been revamped with Victorian frills and finery into the Music Hall Royale of London, circa 1895.
The story and the setting are flavorful reflections of the real Holmes' formative early years in England when his love of Dickens and music halls began to take hold.
A postwar offspring of an American GI and an English lass, Holmes started with that and stayed that way after the big jump to the U.S. "My first three years of life were spent in England," he said. "I must have had a British accent for about four months after my family moved to Levittown, Long Island — and that'll destroy any British affectations. You don't have a hope at that point. My father was a master sergeant who had his own infantry-division band in World War II. Then, he became head of auditions at NBC radio and used to conduct Toscanini's orchestra in pop concerts."
That kind of musical inheritance doesn't exactly go begging here. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is not so much an attempt to fill in the massive blank caused by Dickens' abrupt death — enlisting the audience's help nightly to finger the culprit who killed his Edwin Drood — as it is an affectionate valentine to the Victorian stage and those earnest, if overripe, actors who trod the boards, their egos in ample view.
The long corridor leading into the lobby and theatre of Studio 54 is lined with mock posters of the Music Hall Royale's coming atrocities or tombstones of its past:
Phillip Bax (Peter Benson) in Lancelot and Guinevere.
Alice Nutting, billed "the foremost male impersonator of her day" (Stephanie J. Block), in The Prince and the Pauper.
Janet Conover (Jessie Mueller), fanning herself feverishly, in Her Biggest Fan.
Clive Paget (a wickedly mustached Will Chase) in The Penitent Pirate.
Victor Grinstead (Andy Karl) in The Magic Lute.
Deirdre Peregrine (Betsy Wolfe) as Cinderella in Drop the Other Shoe.
Cedric Moncrieffe (Gregg Edelman) in She's Greek to Me.
Nick Cricker and Son (Robert Creighton and Nicholas Barasch) as Henry the Eighth (and Page) in Heads Will Roll!
As you might imagine, under Scott Ellis' direction, the 2012 cast has a field day playing their English cousins of 1895 playing Dickens' red herrings and reprobates.
And they don't waste any time. Gussied up in vintage duds by William Ivey Long, they're all over you on arrival, greeting you, hustling you down the corridor to your seat, brazenly soliciting votes for murderer-of-the-night (extending their roles). Even the ushers are dressed in period attire, and the bartenders wear stovepipe hats.
Holmes has even littered the play with relatives. "My mother's maiden name was Gwendolen Pynn, and she's one of the dancers in the opium den (Kiira Schmdit), so I got my mother in an opium den. My grandmother, Isabel Yearsley (Janine DiVita), is in the show, and the woman who cries 'Off to the Races' is my aunt, Florence Gill (Shannon Lewis). A lot of my family is in this show without them knowing it."
The idea of cross-dressing the ill-fated title character was not a flourish of Dickens but, again, an outgrowth of Holmes' English past. "When I was a boy," he recalled, "I went to see a Christmas panto, which is a special kind of Christmas play that's unique to England — a very populist play. One of the features of a British Christmas pageant is that the hero is always a female pop singer playing the part of a boy — say, Petula Clark as Aladdin. There's a lot of thigh-slapping and 'Hello, boys and girls' and talking to the audience and asking the audience to applaud, pretty much doing what Mary Martin did in Peter Pan. That production made a powerful impression on me when I was three years old, and, when I first started writing this, I realized that might be a wonderful twist to add to it — having Drood played by a young boy in that fashion. One, it was true to music-hall tradition, and, two, it would let me write a love duet for two sopranos. I thought it just made the whole show feel like it's from that world, and, also, it made the whole thing a little daffy. I liked that."
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