A Dickens of a Dud

There is something altogether fascinating about the Victorian era. It has come to be known as a time of refined sensibilities, straitlaced moralism and restrained romanticism as depicted in the works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and the Bronte sisters. Ladies and gentlemen did not “go to bed,” during the 19th century, as that would be too suggestive. Instead they “retired.” Underwear was referred to as “linens” or “inexpressibles.” To view a young woman’s stockinged ankle provided enough oil for the pennywhistle to last a dozen sleepless nights.

At the same time, a low brand of crude humor, bawdy innuendo and musical burlesque proliferated as an outlet for all those middle class merchants and self-made men to blow off steam while their dutiful wives sat home next to the hearth knitting doilies. In literature, sarcasm, social criticism and pointed barbs were cloaked in gentility by masters of the form, like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde and the inimitable Charles Dickens. The art of verbal warfare was perfected and, as a result the timbre of musical theatre was changed forever.

British recording artist Rupert Holmes, who gave us the infectious 1979 earworm “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” must certainly have had this duality in mind when he penned the twenty plus songs for the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” It’s a pity his skill wasn’t up to the challenge. To say the rapid-fire musical interludes are tedious would be giving far too much credit to tedium. The point of fact is, they are deadly dull. Which says an awful lot about musical theatre on Broadway during the mid-1980s.

Never mind the fact that the Broadway musical was loosely based on the unfinished last novel of the aforementioned Mr. Dickens, Holmes took such license with the material it’s hard to discern the mastery in the mix. Basically a play within a play, in which the players of the Victorian Music Hall Royale mount a production of the incomplete manuscript, with winking asides, parlor game antics and very little by way of reverence for the source material. As written, the title character is, to descend into the vernacular, an asshole. His murder, if murder it be, elicits little more than a shrug, with far more emphasis put on the nudge-nudge-wink-wink tomfoolery of the players.

The real pity, then, is that such a splendid cast has been wasted on this dreadful doggerel in American Southwest Theatre Company’s second offering of the 2014-2015 season. Given that the delightfully talented Nicole Bartlett assay’s the title role as “male impersonator” Alice Nutting, in one of the show’s more interesting conceits, and former NMSU Theatre Department head Tom Smith is a brilliant choice for the sprightly, irreverent and gaily dressed master of ceremonies, the Chairman, the potential for superlative diversion was altitudinous.

Throw in a beautifully rendered performance by Aaron Hernandez as Victorian hambone actor Clive Paget cavorting sinuously across the stage as the unctuous and hissably malevolent John Jasper and a handful of nuanced performances by the likes of Parigrynne Cox as moonfaced tart Dierdre Peregrine, playing virtuous ingénue Rosa Bud; Caitlin Artrip as saucy Janet Conover playing tempestuous Helena Landless; Joseph Rodriguez as bombastically suave Victor Grinstead playing hot-tempered and reluctant acculturation casualty Neville Landless and that promise becomes staggering.

NMSU Student actors (from L) Aidan Viscarra, Stephanie Vasquez-Fonseca, Josh Horton, Aaron Hernandez, Nichol Bartlett, Danya Lineras and Austin Parrish try to solve the mystery of who killed Edwin Drood.
NMSU Student actors (from L) Aidan Viscarra, Stephanie Vasquez-Fonseca, Josh Horton, Aaron Hernandez, Nichol Bartlett, Danya Lineras and Austin Parrish try to solve the mystery of who killed Edwin Drood.

Fine performances have also been turned in by the likes of Cameron Lang as stock cockney Nick Cricker/Durdles and Austin Parrish as eager bit player Phillip Bax/Bazzard, and to a lesser degree by Stephanie Vasquez-Fonseca, who may not have been the best choice for dimpled doxy Angela Prysock shouting her songs as vivacious diva Princess Puffer and oddly timbered Frank Alvarado ululating his lines as dotty Cedric Moncrieffe/Reverand Crisparkle. Both of these latter characters would have benefitted greatly from more age-appropriate actors.

Despite the choice of material, credit must be given to recurrent director Josh Chenard for his clever use of “Laugh-In” inspired portals to keep the pacing brisk, Jim Billings for his unusually subtle set design (which apes the Victorian fashion of rolling flats to convey context) and retro spotlight lighting design (which effectively conveyed the pomposity of the players during their show-stopping introductions) and Guenivere McMahon for her gorgeous costumes (particularly that of Smith’s coat of many colors and Hernandez’ prismatic vest in direct contrast to the rest of his funereal garb). The choreography of Karlos Saucedo, too, is quickly becoming a highlight of ASTC productions, especially as he sheds his hip hop inflections in favor of Jerome Robbins showmanship.

Which makes the production itself all the more dismal for its lack of realization where the combined talent is concerned. The point of fact is that Holmes, Tony Awards notwithstanding, has created a flat, stilted mess – a humdrum, poor-man’s version of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, without any of the charm and riddled with hackneyed stereotypes. Drood is Dickens on opium, with a bevy of amply displayed bosoms, lascivious interpolations and a complete deconstruction of the fourth wall as smug gimmicks to keep the groundlings engaged.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the songs. Trying to capture period charm and failing miserably, Holmes lyrics are ponderous and his melodies discordant. To have so many lovely voices warbling aimlessly in search of nonexistent harmony gives new meaning to the word jarring. The real mystery seems to be what the producers of this ungainly farce were thinking when Mr. Pina Colada approached them with his ambitious fool’s phantasm. My guess is it was something like, “well, it can’t be any worse than Quilters.”

In fact, it’s a bit disingenuous to tout the five Tony Awards won by this quixotic clunker, considering the 1984-1985 season has been referred to by many as the all-time worst on Broadway. If anything, this remount merely points out the truth of that claim. It’s only the novelty of having the audience vote to decide the identity of the murderer that lifts this “musicale with dramatic interludes” from the morass of mediocre material from which it is comprised.

It’s a pretty good bet that if The Mystery of Edwin Drood were to premiere off-Broadway today, it would close within a week and be forgotten within a month, the bad taste having been washed away by an equally bromidic – though far more palatable – stage adaptation of a Michael Bey rom-com. But that’s just my opinion and perhaps I’m being too hard on the prosaic proceedings. The world may have been Rupert Holmes’ oyster in 1985, but as Oscar Wilde so pithily suggested, perhaps he simply used the wrong fork.

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