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Hilarious and Exquisite “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at WMU (review) November 14, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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Western Michigan University’s University Theatre presents a hilarious and exquisite evening of musical theater in their production of Rupert Holmes’ whodunnit “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” I saw it in Central park, the original on Broadway, and the revival just a few years ago — not to mention working on two separate productions of the show, and seeing probably ten regional or college productions over the years. In short, I know this show like the back of my hand.

Director/choreographer Jay Berkow and his student actors/technicians choose to go the bawdy fully-emersive music-hall route (rather than the more established musical theater set within a music hall as its framework route). Its not always successful, but it is creative and always very funny.

Costume Designer Julianne Babel has created remarkable character clothing; Scenic Designer MacKenzie Willy’s set is fully realized and looks fantastic. Vocal Director Jeremy Ryan Mossman and Musical Director/Conductor Matthew Shabala keep the show moving along quickly and sounding terrific under Ryan Williams sound design. Matthew Knewtson’s lighting design is colorful and moody.

Don’t know the show? It’s an old chestnut for most of us, but for a younger generation they have most likely not heard of the show or the story — the mystery is Charles Dickens’ final novel — which he had the poor taste to die in the middle of writing and left it without a murder or a conclusion (indeed, was there even a murder?). The musical sets up the premise of members of a music hall cast taking the parts of the characters in Drood and enacting them, and then the audience votes on whom they want as detective, murderer, and lovers. All of the cast leads need to learn the ending based on whom the audience votes-in each night (in reality, at any production of this show, there are only a few combinations that seem to get “elected” performance after performance.)

And what a student cast it is — Payton Reilly plays an excellent Edwin Drood – fine voiced and energetic to the end. Blake Price is a triple threat as singing/acting/dancing John Jasper (although why this production chose to cut Jasper’s Vision ballet in the opium den is beyond my comprehension). Mike Perlongo leads the proceedings as an excellent and charismatic Chairman. Audience favorite Matthew Kurzyniec plays a charming and hilarious Bazzard. Brother/Sister Landless siblings are acted to hilarious effect by Kendall VanAmburg and Lindsay Powers. Love interest Rosa Bud is sung beautifully by Colleen Bielman, and Princess Puffer is astutely played by Gabriella Smurawa, no mean feat for an actress under the age of 60 for this part. Reverend Crisparkle is well played by Aaron C Rutherford, and drunken Georgie-cum-Yorkshire-accented  Durdles by physically comical Nicky Mendelsohn.

Everything moves swiftly, though I would quibble with the choice to set everything in big, comic strokes, rather than allowing the more dramatic moments to shine through. This is particularly bothersome in the comic staging of the serious “Moonfall”, the omission of the ballet, and the weird staging of what should be a very earnest “Perfect Strangers.” Its fun to watch “bad actors” (played by very good actors) do “bad acting” at times, but not for the duration of the show, when it grows tiresome.

Another miss is that the one character most tasked with conveying the “narrative offstage story” (i.e. I saw the guy get carried into the crypt, and then I saw so and so in the shadows) has such a thick accent that the story is virtually indecipherable. And that’s a big problem when you leave your audience scratching their heads and going “huh?”, even if all that dialogue is just throwaway.

Still, minor troubles aside, this is a fantastic production and it is very highly recommended. It is one of the sharpest looking and best-sounding amateur productions of one of my favorite musicals that I have seen.

I loved it. You will too. Go enjoy a great night of trying to solve The Mystery of Edwin Droooooooooooood.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues at Western Michigan University’s Shaw Theatre through November 22nd. Tickets online at theatretickets.wmich.edu

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