The cold grey tendrils of a dim English dawn are unfurling across the Annapolis harbor. The thrilling era of 1890’s London has slipped across the docks and settled into the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre to launch the first show of their 50th season of theatre under the stars. Instead of a night of traditional ASGT musical revelry, The Music Hall Royale has brought to the stage their latest work— the greatest injustice of Charles Dickens’ life— his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With a laughable and loveable ragtag band of actors, these music and lyrics and well-set book by Rupert Holmes come to a fabulously entertaining life under the keen Direction of Andy Scott and make for a most marvelous evening outside. With Musical Direction by Ken Kimble, there is a murderer among the cast and the show’s whodunit changes by the audience nightly! What more could one ask for than such divine vulgarity and hilarious incivility?
Set Designer Matt Mitchell and Scenic Artist Sue Tilberry literally set the stage. Tilberry’s rudimentary sketches of city buildings look like illustrations that might have been captured from the Dickens’ novel itself. Mitchell adds clever convenience to the scenic work with his indented rotating set pieces that transform the outdoors into sheltered houses and darkened corridors inside the cloister. The interior paint jobs are again at the hand of Tilberry most fitting for the places they depict; the garish printed wall paper doing Jasper’s home a level of creepy and unsettling justice that really lends an off-putting sense to his character.
Costume Designer Jackie Colestock sets to work on a series of outfits that serve a dual purpose; keeping the actors in the period of the show while simultaneously representing their characters within the play. (This show indeed has a fabulous meta-element to it that really drives the production along quite smashingly.) Colestock takes full advantage of the opportunity to incorporate vibrant jewel tones in the costumes of Helena and Neville Landless as they are from the less-than-dreary Arabian midlands; their costumes pop with exuberance by comparison to the more traditional and somewhat dowdier English garb. The men are suited with dapper suits and the ladies with elegant and demure dresses, save for the Princess Puffer, of course, a true red-clad lady of the night.
In a musical one often expects dancing and The Mystery of Edwin Drood does not disappoint. Carefully crafted choreography creeps its way into the show under the precise creation of Choreographer Elysia Greene Merrill. In a tribute to the old British acting troupes, with echoes of early Broadway and hints of Vaudeville in her routines, Merrill brings the razzle-dazzle of a stage musical to fruition on the boards of the ASGT’s intimate setting. From duet-style fancy footwork in “Both Sides of the Coin” to larger ensemble numbers like “Off to the Races”, which features a vast array of mime-play dancing, Merrill entices the eyes of the audience with her show-ready dancing.
With energetic vigor, Musical Director Ken Kimble leads the orchestra from behind set pieces unseen. The live orchestra is an excellent touch for a musical such as this and helps keep the performers on track with their songs as Kimble is able to adjust the tempos accordingly. The sounds that Kimble encourages from the ensemble are rich and robust and full of enthusiasm. It is clear that the characters of the British acting troupe wish to engage with the audience on as many levels as possible, and musically welcoming them into the show with a hearty rendition of “There You Are” is the perfect start to the show. The energy among the ensemble never wavers and carries through to the company “The Writing on the Wall” finale.
The sound of the show is enhanced tenfold thanks to the Dialect Coaching of Emily Karol. There is nothing quite as off-putting as listening to bad attempts at British accents, but Karol ensures that this is not the case for this production. With dashing upper-class aristocracy sliding into the diction and enunciation of Drood while Princess Puffer and Durdles have a much more classic gutter-sounding cockney accent overriding their lines. Karol even deliberately exaggerates the untraceably Arabian accents for the Landless siblings, and guides the cast to carry their accents through into their songs so that there is remarkable consistency throughout the performance.
The show itself runs the risk of being dated and confusing but in the skilled hands of Director Andy Scott, the performance leaps off the stage and into the laps of the eager waiting audience without a hitch. Scott readily translates the meta-essence of the acting troupe putting on a play within the actual staged musical so that it reads clearly and concisely throughout the performance. He encourages heightened levels of excitement and energy throughout the performance and ensures that each performer, no matter if their role is the title or ensemble, to intensely engage with the audience as a whole and individually. This serves the show in a most brilliant fashion making it more entertaining than your run of the mill evening at the theatre. Scott also has vision with working on the confines of the ASGT stage; carefully blocking scenes to provide the best view from anywhere in the house while maximizing the play space and avoiding collisions.
Ensemble members that make their personalities felt include Andy Kay Wojciehowski, Cristina Shunk, and Stephanie Bernholz. Wojciehowski’s main interactions happen before the show and during intermission while she’s out engaging with the audience in her sassy red corset. Shunk, who delivers hysterical deadpan lines in “No Good can Come from Bad” stalks in and out of the number as the maid, and Bernholz is responsible for the show’s only puppet. The stick-rod “Deputy” gets quite a few laughs and really keeps the audience rolling as he plays along with drunken Durdles throughout the performance. Ethan Goldberg takes up the role of the troupe drunkard with aplomb. His physicality is staggering, literally, and he keeps his rotten gutter-ripe accent rolling through his most magnificent stage falls.
The outsiders bring mayhem and comic villainy to the show, Helena Landless (Casey Lynne Garner) and her brother Neville (DJ Wojciehowski) shake things up in jolly good England like a proper Middle Eastern sandstorm. Both Garner and Wojciehowski have strong and talented voices, which work exceptionally well together in “A British Subject” and hold the harmonies of the sextet “No Good can Come from Bad” with sturdy resonance. Garner is fiery and feisty and steeped in comedic anger while Wojciehowski takes a more subtle approach but strikes hard on some of the quieter comic nuances.
At this particularly performance— as much in the second act depends on the audience— Garner is entitled to amaze the audience with an absolutely hysterical musical number, “Perfect Strangers Reprise.” Sharing this uproarious duet with Jasper (David Merrill) the pair ham up the song until the audience is rolling in the aisles with tears streaming from their faces; an indulgent comedic gem which makes for the perfect nightcap to the evening of amusements provided within the show.
Merrill’s performance is nothing short of stupendous. Focused, flamboyant, and overall fabulous, his exaggerated affectations make John Jasper absolutely maniacally devious and delectably diabolical. A surefire villain who creeps with great lechery all around Rosa Bud (Paige Miller), Merrill is a sinister delight in this role. His duet with Miller, “Moonfall,” which is less of a duet and more of him stealing the song with his silent but engaging reactions, is haunting in a spine-tingling fashion. The duet that earns him a thunderous ovation, however, is “Both Sides of the Coin” shared with the chipper Chairman (Erik W. Alexis.) This number is pumped with enthusiasm, and both performers patter to perfection. What is truly astonishing is when the pair starts triple-timing their way through the patter; Merrill never misses a word and would put even the staunchest of Gilbert and Sullivan performers to mortal shame. It’s Merrill’s striking delivery of “Murderer’s Confession” (again— this performance only— or maybe not, just depending on your audience) that drives the coffin to the nail in regards to his talent. The roller coaster of vocal, physical, and emotional experiences that Merrill unleashes in this number makes his performance truly sensational.
Miller, as the gooey ingénue has a lovely series of solos and duets throughout. Her voice alights upon “Moonfall” with trepidation and underlying terror that is transcribed into beautiful and light soprano tones. At this performance Miller also takes on the role of Dick Datchery later in the show and delivers a hysterical but indefatigable patter-ballad of “Out on a Limerick” that really gets the audience going. Pairing her against Princess Puffer (Maribeth Vogel) is a brilliant move; as these two women are the serious females of the show. Vogel has a ripe cockney sound and really lays into her musical numbers with zest and zeal. Unafraid to tackle her warm and rich alto range, numbers like “The Wages of Sin” and “The Garden Path to Hell” become emotionally invested pieces of interest that the audience grows to love. Vogel cares deeply for her character’s path and expresses that empathy passionately.
The notorious Edwin Drood, as played by company cross-dresser Alice Nutting (Emily Lentz) is really where and what the show is all about. Lentz glides through the character with panache and a casual classy ease that really makes her feel at home in the top hat and tails department. “Two Kinsmen” a boastfully proud duet of fraternity shared with Merrill’s character, is just one small sampling of her impressive voice. “Perfect Strangers” is a sweeter duet shared with Miller’s character that displays the range and versatility that Lentz possesses. Leading the ensemble through “The Writing on the Wall” is one of Lentz’ finest moments in the role and she delivers quality snippiness as well as perfect aristocratic airs consistently throughout the performance; a hoot of a character, especially when playing Alice Nutting with her diva-induced fit in Act II.
A rarely performed musical and a chance for the audience to have a say in a way the story ends, what more could be wanted from such a fabulous evening under the stars?
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The Mystery of Edwin Drood plays through June 20, 2015 at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre— 143 Compromise Street in historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-9212 or purchase them online.