The final, unfinished work by Charles Dickens was a murder mystery novel by the name of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” In the many years since Dickens’ death, mid-novel, countless writers and other creative sorts have attempted to “complete” this story, latching onto a variety of solutions to the conundrums that Dickens posed. Included in this number is Rupert Holmes (yes, that Rupert Holmes, of “Escape (The Piña Collada Song)” fame), who in 1985 wrote the book, music, and lyrics for a Broadway musical adaptation.
Holmes’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” went on to win the Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score, and as such has been frequently revived and produced by local theater companies. The latest such production comes from Austin Playhouse, back on their feet after their theater was flooded last month. Directed by Don Toner and under the musical direction of Lyn Koenning, Austin Playhouse’s “Drood” (playing through Dec. 15) is pure, goofy fun.
“Drood” is something of a play-within-a-play, as the cast, even before the show begins, mingles with the audience as “the esteemed players of the Music Hall Royale” who will be presenting their take on Mr. Dickens’ unfinished work. This paves the way for the defining gimmick of the show, wherein the audience gets to vote on who the murderer turns out to be, with a different ending prepared in the script for every outcome, no matter how unlikely. What’s more, the meta-narrative feeds into the equally melodramatic and overtly sentimental nature of the story, providing context for the actors to ham it up without any sense of guilt.
This version of “Drood” is, in fact, at its best when the performers eschew all sense of proportion and are as campy as possible. Rick Roemer, as the villainous John Jasper, particularly excels at this, with a gleefully cackling performance that never shies away from being too bold or over the top. The rest of the cast each have their moments, as well, particularly Brian Coughlin as the hapless Bazzard, a minor character given a chance to shine with his own solo.
From the outset, Austin Playhouse’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” does not ask to be taken very seriously, and in the process it sets about the serious work of being quite silly, indeed. At this it greatly succeeds, providing a charming good time with the possibility of quite an unexpected ending, indeed.