By Ruth Ross
I had the pleasure of attending (and reviewing) the final performance of the Light Opera of New Jersey's summer production, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Sunday afternoon, July 17, and although the run is over, I write this a week later to inform my readers of the existence and consistently superb work of this esteemed company so you will go the next time you see a post on this blog.
Taking as his inspiration an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, Rupert Holmes has fashioned a droll "take" on Dickens' serious story by setting it as an 1892 production of the London Musical Hall Royale, a conceit that allows for all kinds of theater jokes, jibes at the vanity (and enmity) of actors and the tomfoolery that goes on behind the scenes of such a production. In essence, he has turned a mystery story into meta-theatre where the audience becomes part of the fun when they are asked to choose an appropriate ending from several proposed by the company.
Set in Cloisterham (actually Rochester, England), the play within a play focuses on Drood's malevolent uncle, choirmaster and opium addict John Jasper, who is in love with his pupil, the virginal orphan, Miss Rosa Bud (left), who just happens to be his nephew's fiancée. When she catches the eye of high-strung, hot-tempered Ceylonese immigrant Neville Landless, an enmity between Drood and his rivals ensues. And, when Drood mysteriously disappears while on a walk along the river and his body is never found…at this point, the story leaves off, cut short by Dickens' sudden death in 1870. Adding to the mystery of Drood's disappearance is the mystery of whodunit, an answer to which the audience provides from multiple proposed endings—so that the play ends differently each night.
To complicate matters, the outer shell involves a bevy of prima donnas and leading men who worry about the length of their stage time and the size of their parts. Holmes retains musical hall conventions such as The Chairman, actually a Master of Ceremonies and instigator of action onstage; light comedy; musical numbers; the pantomime staple of the Lead Boy (always portrayed by a young female in drag); and audience participation. Indeed, the actors (in character) roam the audience before the performance asking for their applause and approbation (or, in the case of Jasper, the hisses due a proper villain). This puts the audience in the mood for the rumpus that occurs once the curtain rises, and gives the actors to portray two characters at the same time! It's all great fun.
Director Jeffrey Fiorello continues to amaze with his versatility as he keeps things physical and psychological humming along to a music hall rhythm. And his actor/singers rise to the occasion, just as they did in last summer's A Little Night Music. David Simon (top image, center) is superb as the slightly smarmy William Cartwright, chairman of the festivities. Samantha Sharpe (above, left) has great fun appearing as Edwin Drood and the temperamental Alice Nutting, who is not above storming off when she determines that she's been short changed. Matthew Ciuffitelli's John Jasper (above right) elicits loud hisses whenever he slinks onstage, a malevolence that contrasts with the sunny virginity of the ingénue Rosa Bud/Deirdre Peregrine portrayed by Molly Dunn.
Jason Cilento is a volatile Neville Landless egged on by his exotic sister Helena/Janet Conover played by Lindsay Braverman. Todd Shumpert depicts a lovable drunk grave robber Durdles/Nick Cricket, assisted by his Deputy/Master Nick Cricker played by a wide-eyed Steven Munoz. Robert Allan is the "ecstatic ecclesiastic" Reverend Crisparkle/Cedric Moncrieffe while Chris Frazer is a doltish church tour guide Bazzard whose alter ego Phillip Bax has just "happened" to write a tragedy he'd like to get produced. And almost stealing the whole shebang is July Galorenzo as opium den mother Princess Puffer/Angela Prysock who just might turn out to be...never mind, no spoilers here, but think of the coincidences that riddle a typical Dickens plot. Galorenzo plays the evil vulnerability of the den mistress to the hilt to much hilarity.
Offering able support are Tori Palin, Anthony Alberti, Robert Serrano, Rebecca Monk, Gabe Weiss and Hannah Schroeder in minor roles.
The always impressive production values include a set constructed by Jerry Moses and Gabe Weiss and painted by Timothy Lynch, sound by Matthew Silvay, lighting by Diane Giangreco and costumes by Scaramouche Costumes of Chester. Equally as fine are the musical direction of an eight-member orchestra by Stephen Fox and choreography by Samantha Simpson—not to mention the operatic voices of the entire cast.
Originally developed by Joseph Papp's Public Theatre and performed in Central Park, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a delight on many levels: the basic story for Dickens fans, lots of humor, musical numbers and audience participation. As for whodunnit, I can't tell you, because the ending changes at every performance.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood has ended its run at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, but there will be plenty of chances for you to catch other performances by the Light Opera of New Jersey throughout the coming year, usually at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Basking Ridge. Their fare involves popular Broadway music, light opera excerpts by Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan among others, and a capella groups in the fan favorite A Capella Jamboree during the winter. Keep your eye out for posts on this blog, then buy tickets and go. You won't be disappointed.