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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’

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“Well, there you are,” croons the “Chairman” to the audience in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” From the opening moments in this handsome new production at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, you know you’re in capable hands with Chris Mangels leading the way. The success of this amiable, goofy musical trifle of a show — which has a great deal of fun with the fact that Charles Dickens died before finishing his last novel — rests on the rapport between performers and audience.

The audience is so much a part of the show that it gets to choose the ending, including the murderer, by popular vote. Mangels, in the role of host, runs that election, and in general draws viewers into the old-fashioned English Music Hall atmosphere of the play — and he does it wonderfully. He’s just one of several talented veteran Valley theater performers who join a hard-working company of students to give this show an added sparkle. While I was disappointed with continuing sound and balance problems at the opening night performance — many of the vocals were overpowered by the enthusiastic pit orchestra — the show’s impressive production values and vigorous attention to detail makes for an amusing and clever evening. (The show continues through March 23.)

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw and has always been a special musical for me. One reason is because it’s so good-hearted. It wraps its arms around the audience and squeezes relentlessly. Presented in a self-aware style in which we’re always aware of the music-hall actors performing each role in the Dickens story, there isn’t a strong emotional draw or even much of a murder-mystery tension to connect with the audience. Instead, the show simply goofs it up to the extreme — and keeps pushing the quest for frivolity even further. You either submit, with a big grin on your face, or you don’t.

Another reason the show is dear to me is because Rupert Holmes’ music is so happy and tuneful. Such songs as “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead,” “Perfect Strangers” and even the tossed-in-for-good-measure “Off to the Races” — which doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative — are the type you can hum for days afterward. Holmes’ lyrics are crisp and fun, too, and contain within their whimsical parameters some pertinent philosophic import. (“If you hear my voice, then you’re alive,” the title character sings. “What a bloody marvel we survive, when you think of every risk we face in our mad human race.”)

The COS production, co-directed by James McDonnell (who also designed the sumptuous costumes) and Linda Amaral (who also did the choreography), has some magical moments. Mangels’ impressive scenic design is anchored with the music-hall theme, and he’s created a beautiful proscenium-style frame in which the action unfolds. (A crypt scene, which helps come to life with Steve Lamar’s lighting design, is first-rate, for example.)

As we meet Edwin Drood (played always by a woman, in this case by Jordyn White) and the people in his life who might want him dead, we alternate between the Dickens narrative and the back stories of the music-hall actors playing the roles. Thus we learn that the suspicious John Jasper, Edwin’s uncle, is played by a chap named Clive Paget. (Fresno actor Terry Lewis, in predictably fine form, plays the role.) Jasper, who has his eye on Edwin’s fiancee, Rosa Bud (Munai Faust, with delivers strong vocals) becomes one of the prime suspects after Edwin’s disappearance. But there are a host of other characters who might have wanted Edwin dead as well.

Standouts in the cast include Benjamin Rawls as a rakish Nevile Landless, Steven Braswell as an enigmatic Rev. Mr. Crisparkle and Jacob Williams as Bazzard, the butler with a few tricks up his sleeve. Then there’s Mangels, of course, who struts and frets his way through the material with aplomb. (My only wish: that when his character steps in to play the role of the mayor that he would have skipped the thick, impenetrable, cartoonish brogue; there were problems enough with hearing dialogue and lyrics without goofing it up that way.) My favorite vocals of the evening — and my all-around favorite performance — is Sharon Burley’s Princess Puffer, the opium den mother who goes on to play a prominent part in the narrative. Burley has nice comic chops and a strong, beautiful voice that could be heard over the loud orchestra.

Which brings us, ahem, to the sound. Time and again I write about community theater productions that are seriously hampered by overpowering orchestras. Don’t get me wrong: a live orchestra is an absolute theatrical joy. But if you can’t hear the performers, everything else — the fancy sets and gorgeous costumes, not to mention many of the funniest bits — can get overwhelmed. The quality of this orchestra (conducted by Michael Tackett) is high for a community theater production, but the instrumentation seemed out of whack — too much brass — and much of the sprightly nature of the score simply lost. A woman sitting behind me at intermission remarked: “I wish there had been subtitles.”

Good sound is important in any show, but in this one it’s crucial because of the various possible endings upon which the audience gets to vote. By this time, the idiosyncrasies of the plot might not matter much, but a big part of the fun of “Drood” is that you’re invested in the outcome. If this show has been able to tighten up its sound and balance problems during its run, you should have a Dickens of a good time.

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