First Nighter: The Mystery of Edwin Drood Entertainment Challenge Handily Solved

11/13/2012 10:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013

The 1985 musical that Rupert Holmes wrangled from Charles Dickens' unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood and set within the context of a night at an English music hall is full-throttle entertainment. As revived now by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, it's damn-straight remains solid fun. And that's all there is to that.

Well, that's all there is to that on Anna Louizos' adaptable celebration of a music-hall stage, unless you're a die-hard Dickens fan and dote on his insights into characters' psychologies that over the better part of the last two centuries have ranked him for many readers second only to William Shakespeare.

If you're in that number, you might take small (or large) objection to Holmes' cavalier appropriation of the convoluted plot left dangling at Dickens' 1870 death. The composer-lyricist-librettist doesn't exactly throw it out stem to stern but employs it as not a great deal more than a clothesline on which to hang rousing songs -- "Droodling," you might say of him -- and as a clever opportunity to beg patrons' participation.

The price of a ticket -- more than music-hall entry once was, to be sure -- buys the right to vote for the murderer. Not only that, you can vote on whether the missing Edwin Drood is bumped off in the first place and cast yet a third vote. The tariff also allows you to watch Dickens' characters impersonated by contemporary thesps sending up Victorian-era overacting rather than playing the Dickens creations for genuine emotions.

Sure, these misgivings could give you the pip -- not the Pip of Great Expectations, of course -- but then again, perhaps they won't be disturbing if you lend further thought to Dickens himself. A man who, starting with The Pickwick Papers, repeatedly saw his works adapted for the stage and who's also well known for doing some acting, Dickens not only sometimes included London's East End music halls in his tales but frequented them -- certainly not solely for research purposes.

So in the spirit of Dickens the Music-Hall Lover, let's give over any academic hoity-toity-ism and regard The Mystery of Edwin Drood (curiously shortened to Drood for part of its 1980s run) through Dickens' eyes and ears. Crikey, why stop there? Let's even imagine him angling to play the music-hall compere, Chairman (Jim Norton), who jovially narrates what there is of the action.

From that perspective, it's possible and indeed a pleasure to take in the non-stop delight with which director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle think up all kinds of surprises the cast and others on the creative team spring while the bare bones of Dickens' story gets told.

In it Edwin "Ned" Drood (Stephanie J. Block in a rare musical comedy pants role) loves orphaned Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), who doesn't quite return the ardor. Rosa is even less moved by Ned's uncle John Jasper (Will Chase), who lusts after her, at one early point trying to win her with his original composition "Moonfall" -- the prettiest item in Holmes's score.

While the focal-vocal three play out their skewed love-lust triangle, other typically atypical Dickens persons mingle ominously with their own potential reasons for removing Ned from the shadowy neighborhood. The Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) honed an unrequited love for Rosa's mom, whom Rosa strongly resembles. Ceylon import Neville Landless (Andy Karl) and Ned dislike each other on sight, and Neville's sister Helena Landless (Jessie Mueller) harbors sinister hopes, or doesn't.

Lurking as well are Durdles (Robert Creighton) and son, Deputy (Nicholas Barasch), and Bazzard (Peter Benson), who regards himself as a supernumerary and wants more from life. Most prominent -- definitely for tuner fans -- is The Princess Puffy, an opium-den mistress played by Chita Rivera in a William Ivey Long costume that gives her beloved legs prominence.

Whether singing, dancing or acting, not a man or woman among the ensemble submits less than an effervescent performance. Rivera, who knows every trick in her personal book, gleefully pages through it. Chase is amusingly dastardly. Block is marvelously masculine in a feminine way. Edelman has a high time with clerical gruffness. Norton gives notice that anyone categorizing him as primarily a Conor McPherson interpreter is misinformed.

Among the supporting players, Creighton proves -- as he did in the recent Anything Goes revival -- that when he's on stage, everyone else had better watch out. Benson is another one with engaging scene-stealing ways. So's young Barasch. Nor are the imposing and constantly posing Karl or Mueller easily ignored. (Is there a Tony nominations brewing for either or both?) Wolfe chants "Moonfall" with a pristine glow and sways her exaggerated bustles with aplomb.

What must in no way be underrated are Holmes' clever, foot-tapping, hand-clapping ditties as they spin on music-hall conventions. Often, he's more inclined to anthems rather than to the hijinks of actual favorites like "Waiting at the Church," "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" and "Where Did You Get That Hat?" but he never runs out of melodic or lyric invention.

One of the best things about reviewing The Mystery of Edwin Drood is, it's okay to reveal the ending. That's because, of course, the ending a reviewer sees may not be the same ending -- the same homicidal culprit voted in -- that subsequent audience members encounter. When this writer was present, the villain was -- ta-da! -- Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. So there, the cat's out of the bag -- only, needless to say, to be put right back in it.