Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Belly Laughs Abound in Actors Co-op’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The company of Actors Co-op's The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Photos by Lindsay Schnebly

Actors Co-op transforms its Crossley Theatre into a boisterous English music hall for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, kicking off its 23rd anniversary season with two and a half hours of broad comedy, big personalities and plenty of belly laughs. Director Stephen Van Dorn takes the Tony Award-winning Rupert Holmes musical, based on the unfinished Charles Dickens novel, and stages it in a new configuration for the Crossley, breaking the fourth wall and adding a virtual thrust stage to the theater. It brings the actors into the audience and the audience fully into The Music Hall Royale as his 16-member cast presents The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “A Musicale with Dramatic Interludes” where murder may or may not have happened, not everyone is what they seem, and comedy is always the order of the day.

Since Dickens inconveniently died before he could finish his novel, part of the audience’s job is to vote on its conclusion. Is Drood dead or alive? If he’s dead, who is the murderer...and who is Datchery, the mysterious detective who appears at the top of Act II. And more importantly, who will be chosen to play the lovers in the final scene. As the clues are laid out and the characters introduced, it all comes together like a madcap variety show with singing and dancing (theres a great deal of amusing choreography by Julie Hall), intrigue and adventure, and always great fun throughout.

The cast brings a considerable amount of charm to their performances as the motley crew of actors playing actors playing characters in this lusty musical-within-a-musical. A jaunty affability underscores the proceedings and it’s clear that all involved are having a grand time; none more so than Edwin Drood, played as a pants role by the delightful Catherine Gray.

Craig McEldowney oozes villainy as Drood’s melodramatic, and somewhat comically deranged uncle, John Jasper, and Gina D’Acciaro steals the show as the bawdy Princess Puffer who runs an opium den and spins the perils of her profession into comic gold. Her stand-off with musical director Jake Anthony on piano is priceless and reaffirms that no one messes with the Madame. After seeing her as Puffer, it also makes one hope there’s a Mrs. Lovett lurking in her future, should the Co-op ever add Sweeney Todd to an upcoming season.

Crisp diction, vocal clarity, and the joy of a much larger sounding band than the 5 musicians in the stage left orchestra box are also the result of Anthony’s skill in addressing the difficulties of the complicated score. Peter Allen Vogt doubles as the music hall’s master of ceremonies, narrating, introducing characters, and augmenting the action with his own witty remarks. When he is called upon to step in as Mayor Sapsea for actor who is missing in action he flips into a hilarious character portrait; one that is responsible for a significant number of the belly laughs mentioned earlier.

The Co-op’s designers have also outdone themselves for Drood, with Vicki Conrad providing some ravishing costumes (especially for the ladies and the outrageous Landless brother and sister, Brandon Parrish and Selah Victor), and a set design by Sets To Go’s Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer that is full of surprises. Lighting by Mark Svastics and sound design (yes, the sound effects are a lot of fun) by Warren Davis also work to transform the space and give the theater the feel of a much larger space.

This was my first time seeing a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood* and I am happy to say I have now been duly “Droodified.” I highly recommend you get droodified too! Best of all, the ending will change nightly depending upon how the audience votes so no one will ever be able to spoil it for you.

*Actors Co-op was graciously able to accommodate a last minute schedule change on my part, so the performance reviewed was its final preview.

Brandon Parrish (Neville Landless), Selah Victor (Helena Landless)
and Catherine Gray (Edwin Drood)

The company performs a number from The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Gina D'Acciaro, Lauren Thompson, Emily Armstrong, Jonathan Sims,
and Michelle Parrish

Peter Allen Vogt (center) and the company of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

September 19 - October 26, 2014
Actors Co-op
1760 N. Gower Street
Hollywood, CA 90028 

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