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The Mystery of Edwin Drood:Production is well cast, but audience votes prevents suspension of disbelief

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

MIT Musical Theatre Guild

Directed by Wayne Vargas Music directed by Mark Ethier Produced by John van der Meer

With Ronni Marshak, Veronica C. Page, Anna Benefiel, Ryan J. Kershner, Kate Getzewich, Tarik Alkasab, and the others

First and foremost, a disclaimer: I strongly dislike any kind of postmodernism in theater - the self-aware, rife with references, anything-goes style, which, while possibly amusing on a moment-to-moment basis, always fails to build any kind of consistency and insulates the audience from the events on stage. Suspense of disbelief in theater is extremely hard because of the glaring artificiality of the medium; any breaking of the illusion of self-consistency can be damaging. A possible counter-example is, of course, is Shakespeare's Henry V, but it should be noted that the point of the Chorus addressing the public is to preserve and strengthen the illusion, not to deconstruct it. It is entirely possible that this dislike is simply my own artistic blind spot, but, since art criticism essentially consists of expressing subjective opinions, this will have to do. It is quite possible that you don't share my dislike; then, I presume, you would have enjoyed The Mystery of Edwin Drood more than I did.

As it is well known, Charles Dickens died having written only approximately the first half of a psychological detective novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Since Dickens serialized his novels, he always worked only on the next few chapters, and, as a result, never kept any plot outlines. Therefore, the true ending of the novel is unknown, and a lot of ink was spilled in the endless arguments over what conclusion was originally planned by Dickens. The researchers were looking for the clues in the text of the novel, in the writer's (very few) notes, even in the illustrations to the original text. In the musical by Rupert Holmes, another method is used: the audience votes on the ending, and here lies a problem.

Dickens' novel is an extremely rich fabric, with interwoven threads of vivid characters, complex plot, and unrivaled prose, with a few clues and more than a few red herrings woven into it. The musical, however, dispenses with most of this. Characters are reduced to puppets, and the only thing that remains from the story are the clues (thus there's no plot summary to burden this review). The result is startling - I never thought I could care so little about what happened on stage (the feeling similar to the one I've experienced while watching Shear Madness, although admittedly, Drood is better plotted). This effect is amplified by the structure of the musical. It is ostensibly a play-within-a-play, with the actors playing actors of the imaginary Music Hall Royale, who, in turn, are playing the characters of Drood. The purpose of it, clearly, is to explain the actors' stepping out of characters to prompt the audience's voting; but it mostly creates just one more insulating layer between the audience and the characters.

Unfortunately, the MTG production does nothing to mask the flaws of the musical; the cues, a.k.a. the clues, are delivered with great emphasis, and the story, along with character development, lurches unevenly. From the technical standpoint, Drood is clearly an amateur production, displaying much more enthusiasm than polish. The acting is uniformly solid, and the ensemble feel is very impressive. The singing is much weaker: only two performers stand out. Kate Getzewich, as a shady Princess Puffer, has a powerful voice and projects excellently (although, once in a while, she sounds a bit tense). Anna Benefiel, as Rosa Bud, displays a great range in both acting and singing, and when she carries a melodic line, she's a joy to listen to.

The rest of the songs are mostly lost - the voices are not strong enough to be heard over the way-too-loud orchestra. I presume the patter song "Both Sides of the Coin" is performed with good diction, but I couldn't understand a word since it wasn't loud enough.

However, there is one instance when the elusive magic of theater works full-time, and I feel momentarily entranced and transported. It occurs early in the first act, when the stage is dark, and a single silvery beam of light shines directly on Rosa Bud, who with a crystal-clear voice sings "Moonfall," a song, written for her by opium-addicted John Jasper, combining romance and tragedy like the two sides of his own split personality. An excellent song, an amazing scene, which makes one wonder at how much the theater can accomplish - and regret that the rest of the show is not on the same level.