The Bottom Line
Even in this spiffy Broadway revival, Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical is a retro construct imprisoned in its own quaintness.
Studio 54, New York (runs through Feb. 10)
Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, Chita Rivera, Andy Karl, Jessie Mueller, Betsy Wolfe
NEW YORK – One of the refrains sung by the Victorian music hall performers in is, “No good can come from bad.” The case isn’t quite so black and white in this 1985 “musicale with dramatic interludes” by Rupert Holmes, teased out of the unfinished Charles Dickens novel. But regardless of the accomplished cast and sparkling design and direction in Roundabout’s Broadway revival, nothing great can come of mediocre material.
The show’s biggest selling point is the novelty of having the audience vote to decide the murderer’s identity at every performance. But the charms of this rollicking pastiche are otherwise intermittent.
Transferred to Broadway after debuting outdoors as a Shakespeare in the Park production, the show’s title was officially simplified to midway through its premiere run. It swept the top Tony Awards in its categories, winning for best musical, score, book, direction and lead actor. But with one or two notable exceptions, the mid-‘80s was a lackluster time for the original musical. The competition for chief honors that year was the Andrew Lloyd Webber concept piece , the subpar Bob Fosse assembly , and the dance revue , none of which muscled into the musical-theater pantheon.
Holmes’ show scores points for ingenuity, but it often feels like being stuck for too long in front of an olde-worlde department-store window display. A vehicle running 2½ hours needs more memorable songs than these mostly interchangeable parlor ditties, and more engaging characters than this bunch, which by design, are cardboard cutouts enlivened by melodramatic flourishes. A genuinely intriguing mystery rather than a half-baked whodunit devoid of psychological complexity wouldn’t hurt either.
Director Scott Ellis, set designer Anna Louizos and costumer William Ivey Long all do fine work conjuring London’s Music Hall Royale in 1895, its gaudy painted flats encased in a gold proscenium that includes boxes for onlookers. And the cast appears to be having a ball. They double as characters within the evening’s presentation and the ensemble of second-rate resident players and guests hired to impersonate them, ranging from self-adoring stars to ambitious upstarts to shameless hams.
Chief among them is the wonderful Irish actor Jim Norton (a Tony winner for Conor McPherson’s ) as the Royale’s Chairman, William Cartwright. He also steps in as the ancient Mayor of the cathedral city Cloisterham when the company member scheduled to perform that role is detained at the bar. With his hoary double entendres, Norton makes an effortless master of ceremonies, as at ease with the stage business as he is with the winking innuendo of lining up companionship for single gents in the audience. Ad-libbing occasionally, he strikes the ideal jaunty tone to resuscitate this very British popular entertainment of a bygone era.
The ill-fated title character is played as a trousers role by “London’s leading male impersonator,” Miss Alice Nutting (Stephanie J. Block), whose diva tantrum in Act II is the show’s comic high point. Betrothed since childhood to Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), Edwin is planning their wedding and departure for Cairo, but his schizoid choirmaster uncle, John Jasper (Will Chase), has other ideas for the lovely unplucked Rosa.
Also on hand is the Reverend Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman), who still smolders for Rosa’s dead mother; and his exotic houseguests, the Ceylonese twins Neville and Helena Landless (Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller), who may have their own devious agenda. With their arched eyebrows and amusing air of mysterious duplicity, these two are spot on. Lurking on the sidelines are the drunken stonemason Durdles (Robert Creighton), his gravedigging apprentice (Nicholas Barasch), and a bit player (Peter Benson) hungry for a meatier role.
The story’s other key figure is the disreputable underworld denizen known as the Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), who runs an opium den in London. Rivera doesn’t have the vocal mastery of Cleo Laine, who originated the role, and she might sport the worst Cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke in . But it’s always a treat to see the Broadway veteran onstage, and she puts her songs across with old-timer authority.
was crafted during the peak popularity of the children’s gamebook series, , which now seems a precursor to the future explosion of interactive entertainment with variable narrative outcomes. Halting abruptly during an ensemble number at the point where Dickens stopped writing, the cast members poll the audience to settle on which of the principal characters killed Edwin Drood. There are also votes on less consequential matters such as the identity of an incognito detective and a pair of lovers for the required happy ending. This electoral element is undeniably a fun gimmick that livens up Act II while solving the quandary of Dickens’ incomplete story.
However, the rest of the show, though frequently jolly, is just as often twee and boring. Louizos has built some very witty sets, notably a spooky graveyard choked by fog and an impressive Victorian train station with incoming locomotive. And along with lots of knees-up merriment, Warren Carlyle has choreographed a nightmarishly erotic dream ballet as opium and laudanum course through John Jasper’s addled mind one night in Princess Puffer’s house of ill repute. But all the affectionately antiquated whimsy never quite adds up to robust entertainment.