By PAM HARBAUGH
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” (a.k.a “Drood!”) they’re going to get more: A foray into “immersive theater.” The show opens Tuesday and runs through Feb. 4, 2018.
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. And tickets are already getting scarce.
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, but Dickens left this mortal coil before he penned the mystery’s reveal of “who-done-‘im-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 delight: The audience gets to solve the mystery. Add that to music and lyrics which “Drood” 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. But that still leaves plenty of options for the audience to choose “whodunnit.”
To facilitate this, 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.”
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.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “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, visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in Vero Beach 32963 and the Melbourne Beachsider.