by Gail M. Burns

In 1983 successful singer/songwriter Rupert Holmes concocted a plan to make a musical out of Charles Dickens’ unfinished final work The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He had the extraordinary opportunity to present this concept to Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theatre), which led to a 1985 summer-time run in Central Park and a transfer to Broadway shortly thereafter. The show went on to win several Tonys, including Best Musical as well as Best Book and Best Original Score for Holmes. (For a full and fascinating history of Holmes’ journey with this show, click HERE.)

Holmes’ original version ran over three hours, and ever since he has been in the process of pruning it. Everything was tightened up between the Central Park run and Broadway – even the title was shortened to simply Drood. He did rewrites again for the 1987 London production and the 1988 American touring production.

Fast forward 30-odd years and Holmes decided to take another crack at the show, this time reducing it to 90 minutes and paring down the orchestrations (uniquely, Holmes orchestrated his own show) to create a chamber version which was presented at a theatre in Raleigh, NC. Hubbard Hall Artistic Director David Snider had had Drood on his short list for some time, but when he sought information on the chamber version from Raleigh there was no answer. Then he heard from Rupert Holmes himself! 

“I first talked with Rupert Holmes about doing Drood here at Hubbard Hall about 19 months ago,” Snider explained. “He had checked out the Hall and had researched my career, so he offered me the opportunity to direct. I was amazed that he would reach out to us like that! We talked for about an hour, there was quickly interest on both sides. I knew that our audience would love the interactivity of Drood, just as they had adored The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2016.”

Holmes spent the first six years of his life in Northwich, Cheshire, UK, and during those early years he was taken at Christmas time to see that most British of “holiday treats” – the Panto. A Panto takes a familiar story – say Cinderella or Puss in Boots – then basically runs amok. Men play women, women play men, saucy hijinks prevail, and silly songs are sung. Holmes wanted to bring the show back to its roots in his imagination – to the Victorian tradition of the British Music Hall and the Panto format – and so in this version Dickens’ tale is being performed by a British troupe from the Music Gall Royale, sadly abandoned in the colonies in 1895 by an unscrupulous impresario. 

As Snider aptly remarked, “The Hall’s architecture has a certain power to it” making it he perfect perfect venue for this all-new chamber version of Drood, which Holmes created especially for the Hall and Snider has brought to life. Built in 1878 and the last remaining opera house in Washington County, New York, Andy Nice’s set utilizes its turn-of-the-century stage curtain, ornate Victorian gas chandelier, stenciled walls, and chestnut woodwork as its framework. Also on display are some of the handsome painted backdrops discovered stored in the Hall when it was reopened in 1978 after lying dormant for half a century. Chelsie McPhilimy’s lighting design does not try to evoke that gas lighting that would have been in place, but adds an anachronistic wink to modern theatrical technology.

Since Dickens died before he finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood – it was published in installments – Holmes decided to marry the mystery with the audience interactivity of the Panto and allow each audience to vote on who killed Edwin Drood (if, indeed, he was killed at all), the identity of the mysterious detective Dick Datchery, and on which two characters will become romantically involved to produce a happy ending. The audience choice of Datchery reduces the number of potential murders to six, and then the selection of the accused narrows down the potential matings of the remaining characters. All of this means the performers and musicians must prepare many different combinations of words and music at each performance.

The Panto tradition provides strong roles for women, since the “principal boy” is a “trouser role.” Drood does not feature the male cross-dressing for which the Panto tradition is so famous, but it does allow for women to play several of the men’s roles if desired. The title character is always played by a woman – here Sara Curtis – and in this production Erin Oullette also cross-dresses to play the hot-headed Neville Landless with delightful results.

Snider has directed this talented cast with the high-energy hijinks of Panto players, with much dashing through the audience and breaking the fourth wall. Each performer plays both the Music Hall actor and role s/he is playing in the play within a play. One actor fails to show due to drink, others show open hostilities outside the plot of the play. It is all good, fast-paced fun, and a refreshing change in family fare for the holiday season.

“We have a great cast – three newcomers from New York City and then many of our regional favorites – all wonderful singers,” Snider enthused. “The amazing Richard Cherry is our musical director heading an eight-piece orchestra. And I knew right from the start that I wanted Sherry Nazdan Recinella to create our great, lush, theatrical Victorian costumes.”

Recinella’s designs extend to some alluring corsetry for the ladies, and none sport it so well as Catherine Seeley, as Flo, from the Gutters of London. It is not surprising to read in the program that Seeley is also a burlesque artiste. 

This critic enjoyed seeing familiar faces Oullette, Seeley, Scott Renzoni as the drunken Durdles, Joe Phillips as the upright Reverend Crisparkle, and the inimitable Christine Decker as Princess Puffer, doyenne of the opium den. Newcomers William Cartwright as the Chairman, our host for the evening and Zach Barnes as the nefarious John Jasper were delightful in their roles, and strong singers.  As the egregiously overlooked Bazzard, Tim Garner was a real scene stealer. Curtis was chipper in the title role and outrageously temperamental as diva-in-drag Alice Nutting. Sylvia Bloom as the exotic Helena Landless and Kyra Fitzgerald as the blushing ingénue Rosa Bud both sang beautifully and added to the melodrama and mystery.

Drood is hilarious, the score is gorgeous, the story is by Charles Dickens, and the audience gets to finish it each night,” Snider said. “It’s just an amazing two hours, so I encourage everyone to come to the Hall, let go of your troubles, and take time revel in life during these hectic holiday weeks.”

Hubbard Hall presents The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes, directed by David Snider, November 17-December 3, 2017.  Musical director Richard Cherry, choreography by Darcy May, set design by Andy Nice, lighting design by Chelsie McPhilimy, costume design by Sherry Recinella, vocal coach Sylvia Bloom, stage manager Maureen Cossey.

CAST Micah Sauvageau as The Chairman William Cartwright; Scott Renzoni as Durdles; Zach Barnes as John Jasper; Sylvia Bloom as Helena Landless; Sara Curtis as Edwin Drood; Christine Decker as Princess Puffer; Kyra Fitzgerald as Rosa Bud; Tim Garner as Bax/Bazzard; Erin Ouellette as Neville Landless; Joe Phillips as the Reverend Crisparkle; and Catherine Seeley as Flo.

Performances Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2 pm. Special matinees Tuesday, November 21 at 10am  and Friday, December 1 at 10am. Regular Price $30 Adults/$15 Students Ages 6-22. Hubbard Hall is located at 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, NY

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