‘End’ game: ‘Drood’ features audience participation

Audiences at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach have come to expect top-flight professional productions with gorgeous scenery, lavish costumes and winning casts.

But with its interactive musical production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (aka “Drood!”) they’re going to get more: a foray into “immersive theater.”

The production has been mounted in Riverside’s Waxlax Stage, a capacious space known as a “black box” theater where staging and seating has ultimate flexibility.

The story’s setting is the Victorian Music Hall Royale. The audience sits at cabaret tables where they can order drinks during the performance. A raised performance space sits in the center.

“At any moment, the actors can step down and be among the audience who are treated as patrons of the Music Hall Royale, and of course, delightfully so,” said director DJ Salisbury.

Another music hall conceit embraced is using a woman to play the role of Edwin Drood.

“In music halls, women performed as men and they became stars,” Salisbury said.

This concept springs right out of the award-winning musical, which was written and composed by Rupert Holmes.

Commissioned by the legendary Joseph Papp to write a new musical for the New York Public Theatre, Holmes turned to Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Like most of Dickens’ works, the story has a complicated cast of characters who wind their ways in and out of each other’s lives. Here, the story includes, among others, an opium addicted uncle, a pair of fraternal twins from Ceylon, a pretty ingénue, a kindly pastor, a drunken gravedigger, a ring and the ill-fated young man, Edwin Drood.

Like his other works, “Drood” was created in episodic installments for publications.

The only problem is that Dickens left this mortal coil before he penned the mystery’s reveal of “who-done-him-in.”

While scholars point to Dickens’ own letters and notes saying it was the uncle, no one knows for sure.

Enter Holmes, who turned this frustration into a delightful conceit – the audience gets to solve the mystery. Add that to music and lyrics which actor Warren Kelley said will “rock your world,” the musical won Holmes Tony awards for best book of a musical, best music and best lyrics.

Of course, this inventive solution seems almost de rigueur for Holmes. Born in England and raised in New York, Holmes wrote the well-known song “Escape,” also known as the “Pina Colada Song.” He created the television show “Remember WENN” and wrote a number of plays and musicals, including the book and some lyrics for “Curtains.”

When “Drood” was first produced, it had a cast of 22. It had been an expensive show to produce due to the Victorian costumes and multiple sets.

About 10 years ago in New York City, Salisbury and Kelley, who plays the Chairman in the show, participated in a one-act workshop of the musical.

“Rupert Holmes came,” Salisbury said. “He wanted to workshop it to discover a way to make it more producible with a smaller cast and shorter length.”

They worked it down to a cast of 11 people.

In his character of the Chairman, Kelley, a favorite actor among Riverside patrons, begins the proceedings talking directly to the audience, taking them from one of the story’s settings to another.

It is the Chairman who elicits the audience’s choices.

“There is a trend currently to have theater be more immediate and intimate,” Kelley said. “Even if it’s in a big space, there are all sorts of gradations in an attempt to make it of the people … It invites the audience to be a participant.”

To facilitate the audience choosing who dunnit, Holmes had to write multiple endings. And, Salisbury and his cast had to spend twice as long in rehearsal going thru multiple mechanics and what Salisbury swears is 400 possibilities.

“It’s unnerving for the actors,” he said, laughing. “All of the potential murderers have their own musical confession of the murder. Each is a unique telling of the story as to why and how they murdered Edwin Drood. Even the band has to be ready.

“Specifically the lovers duets, the song is the same but there are miniature scenes unique to the pairing — Princess Puffer, she could be paired either with the young man from Ceylon or the gravedigger, Durdles, the drunk. Each has their own little scene to lead up to the reprise.”

Because the cast turns to the audience for help, the fourth wall vanishes completely and the audience is in on the story, so why not bring them in on the production as well.

“Rupert is a genius,” Salisbury said. “He’s such a witty writer, but he really also is an historian of the music hall style of theater which was very popular in late 19th century Britain.”

Kelley calls the musical a “love letter to the theater.”

“The English musical was a precursor of the variety show, the grandfather of the ‘Carol Burnett Show,’” Kelley said. “Songs, sketches, dances and novelty acts all were part of the English music hall. And Rupert has totally embraced that idea.”

Mixing standard musical theater “at its very best with an English music hall pastiche” and adding a Dickensian world results in a brilliant piece, Kelley said.

“Audiences, I think, really love that they are in on it,” Salisbury said.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” runs through Feb. 4 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets are $75 and are selling out fast. Call 772-231-6990 or go online at www.riversidetheatre.com.    

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