NEW YORK — There are 400 possible permutations of endings for Rupert Holmes' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the overachieving 1985 musical that was popular for a decade or so, but then seemed pretty much to vanish inside the opium pipe of Princess Puffer, one of its colorful, show-within-a-show characters, as created by the great Charles Dickens in his unfinished 1870 novel. Inconveniently, Dickens died before revealing the murderer.
Director Scott Ellis' lively, crowd-pleasing and — given the horrors of the East Coast storms and the abiding comedic quality of the material — very well-timed Broadway revival of the show for the Roundabout Theatre Company is playing at Studio 54. Puffer is played by no less than Chita Rivera, one of a clutch of Broadway brand names filling out a cast having a great deal of easygoing fun with Holmes' music hall confection. It all has the feeling of a live version of a star-laden holiday TV special, with many of the same pluses and minuses.
In addition to Rivera, the stars include Will Chase (of "Smash" fame) as the potentially villainous John Jasper, Stephanie J. Block (generally a Broadway lead) as Edwin Drood and Jessie Mueller, sporting an indeterminate East Asian accent, as Helena Landless, one of the more popular potential killers who haunt the English dawn, as rendered in designer Anna Louizos' lovely evocation of the kind of settings one would find in an 1895 London music hall.
Ellis departs from tradition in removing the Chairman from his desk and letting him roam free, but Jim Norton, an actor generally associated with rustic, mystical types, is deliciously loquacious and droll in his role as the master of these ceremonies, connecting the audience with the ever-more-complex plot and rolling a plethora of pronouncements off his silky tongue. The nixing of the Chairman's bombast was one of Ellis' best decisions.
As a solve-it-yourself, self-aware musical, "Drood" presents some traps, not all of which are here fully avoided. At various points, one has to force oneself to re-engage with the grand questions of the plot, which are not always tracked as adroitly as would be ideal. The best productions of "Drood" manage, at least in the final number, to exploit the way the lyrics allow the clutter of the show to fall away — and to help us ponder a few broader matters of life and death, at least in passing. That never happens here. There also are moments when you crave a messier production that embodies more of the cheap raunch of the music hall, and also a show that engages in a less predictable and more intense fashion with the audience.
But that was bothering almost no one inside Studio 54. For "Drood" comes with a much better score (Holmes, to his abiding credit, wrote the whole shooting match) than most people remember, and Ellis has an infectiously good-natured cast that's fully capable of making the vocals soar. It's not all peppy specialty numbers either. "The Solution" is the kind of closing number any show should envy. Block, who seems relieved not to carry the entire enterprise, sounds particularly spectacular, as does Betsy Wolfe as the ripe ingenue Rosa Bud. Rivera, as one might imagine, could not be a more delightful presence in any romp in town. Andy Karl, meanwhile, adds a little juice and flash for the crowd as Neville Landless.
All in all, Ellis has stars, zest and stellar escapist material on his side. "Drood," I suspect, will now be back in fashion.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" plays at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. Call 212-719-1300, or visit roundabouttheatre.org.
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