By PAM HARBAUGH
Riverside Theatre’s Waxlax stage turns into a high-spirited Victorian musical hall with its robust and meticulous production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Directed by DJ Salisbury, the concept here is immersive theater. So expect to participate, comfortably, that is. The audience is not expected to get on stage (thank God) to sing or improvise. But they will join the lusty, laugh-filled party in sing-a-longs and hearty approval of the heroic and disapproval of the villainous.
And, audiences get to vote on whodunit and also choose a pair of lovers (may Dionysus smile upon you and have Durdles be one of the chosen).
This is the slimmed down version of Rupert Holmes’ Tony Award winning musical based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. Rather than a cast of nearly two dozen, as it was originally written in 1985, here 11 performers and a five-piece music combo re-enact, in grande Delsarte fashion, a tale inhabited by a host of deliciously rococo Dickensian characters.
This is the second professional production of this version, which Salisbury helped Holmes create during a workshop in New York City 10 years ago.
Salisbury, who is also a choreographer, and his excellent, professional cast bring a witty, intricate buoyancy to the stage, reflective of the complicated story.
As The Chairman, the wonderful Warren Kelley, begins the proceedings by advising the audience to get involved and urging them to intone the name “Drood” with playful dread. Kelley won hearts as Vanya in “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” two years ago at Riverside and three years ago as Atticus Finch in Orlando Shakes’ “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Here, he is the conduit between audience and story.
We are introduced to the rest…and what a “the rest” it is. Salisbury very wisely waits until the show is over before handing out the programs, not only to keep the Victorian musical hall ambience, but also so you can feel vindicated when you whisper to your friends “That woman playing Edwin Drood is so good…has she ever done Elphaba?”
That woman is the stunning Anne Brummel, who takes on the role of Edwin Drood, a conceit woven into the actual Victorian music hall experience. (And yes, she’s been the green witch, both as a Broadway standby and performing the role in national tour.) While Brummel nails that Broadway stage swagger typical for leading men, she also serves up an unforgettable duet “Perfect Strangers,” which she sings with delightful songbird Rachael Ferrera, who is Rosa Bud, Drood’s intended.
John Paul Almon brings such funny restraint to the trustworthy Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. After working at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and more, Almon certainly has that appeal of a seasoned actor who knows how to work the audience with a mere glance of his eye.
Additionally, there are Norman Large and Sally Mayes, two performers with hefty professional credits from Broadway to “Star Trek.” As Durdles, the gravedigger, Large is a hoot, constantly scratching his behind and leerin’ at the “ligh-dees.” But this actor, who has performed with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa and performed multiple roles in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, certainly knows his way around a song.
So too does Mayes, who, as Princess Puffer the opium purveyor, wrings out the emotional, heartfelt surprise in the evening with the song “The Garden Path to Hell.” Oh my, to see her in “Sweeney Todd,” or better still, “She Loves Me” for which she received a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics nominations.
Claire Neumann and Brian Krinsky are comic hoots as Helena and Neville Landless, mysterious twins from Ceylon. Sarah Primmer and Peter Saide entertain as Flo and Drood’s uncle, John Jasper. You’ll want to see more of oh-so-funny Neumann, who really brightens the stage with exquisite timing and energetic comic expression, which even shows in her speech.
You’ll also want to see more of Andrew Sellon, who brings the same Chaplin-esque feel to his role of Bazzard as he did a year ago to his role as Gaston, the chef in Riverside’s production of “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf.”
The music combo, led by music director Anne Shuttlesworth, stays toe to toe with this professional cast from first downbeat to the final flourish.
Moreover, the look of the show is pumped to the extreme. Kurt Alger’s lavish costumes are sublime. He doesn’t spare a thread, nor a button nor a splash of fur in adding to the visual treat set in the audience’s lap. One such costume is donned merely for an exit of an irate character (Brummel). Alger even lets loose with fabulous wigs (oh, Warren Kelley, we’ve never seen you so perky).
Richard Crowell’s scenic design is big and hearty and Sarah Elliott’s lighting design brings warmth and cheeriness to it. And kudos as well goes to professional stage manager Amy M. Bertacini, who keeps all these elements on perfect pitch.
This is such a splendid and memorable evening in the theater. You will be transported, lifted out of this daily miasma of gloom and dread into something cheery and fun. Indeed, Riverside’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is like a big party. And you get to play.
Don’t miss it. Tickets are disappearing, so call now.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” runs through Feb. 4, 2018 at Riverside Theatre is at 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach, FL. Tickets are $75. This is a professional production, so performances are throughout the week with matinees on Wednesdays and select Thursdays and Saturdays. Call 772-231-6990, visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.