The first mystery for me had nothing to do with Edwin Drood. It had to do with an irrepressible, knock-about scamp named Durdles. I had no idea who it could possibly be behind the makeup and raggedy clothes. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was none other than Mr. Nick Cricker! Mr. Cricker is a longtime member of the company of the Music Hall Royale (the troupe responsible for the delightful adaptation of Mr. Charles Dickens' unfinished novel The Mysery of Edwin Drood, currently on the boards at Le Petit). If you had the good fortune of seeing Mr. Cricker in some of his previous appearances -- as the hell-for-leather drill instructor in Tracers or more recently, as the brutal Archie in Tiger Tail -- you would share my amazement that this ingratiating clown could be the same person. In that apt English phrase, his performance as Durdles is spot-on.
Of course, there is a danger that I've just caused Mr. Cricker a frosty reception in the green room, before the next show. The company of the Music Hall Royale (unlike the New Orleans theater community, where all is altruism, sweetness and light) do not take kindly to laudatory remarks, when they are foolishly wasted on others. Or so I've heard. Didn't Miss Alice Nutting storm off, with her lap dog in tow, right in the middle of last Sunday's performance? A temperamental lot, these actors.
But back to Drood. Le Petit has been revamped into a facsimile of a Victorian music hall, complete with a tier of plush box seats. As the show begins, the actors are busily fraternizing with the audience. Then the MC, Mr. William Cartwright (Eddie Collins), takes charge. There are announcements about the availability of women from the cast for paying gentlemen. And such like patter, which is meant to give a lusty old-time air to the proceedings -- but which, naturally, succeeds in the very opposite; it creates a feeling of total sham. I have to admit that at this early juncture I nearly jumped ship, for I thought if the "reality" that is meant to frame "the play within the play," is in itself so broad and false, what's the point of the whole enterprise?
Luckily, the show is so much fun and the cast is so good that this initial blast of tinny theatricality hardly matters. By the time the final curtain rings down, they have you eating out of their hand.
The play is done as a melodrama with a row of footlights casting its glare on huge, lovely backdrops (designed by Bill Walker). Part of the humor, at least in the beginning, arises from the vanity of the actors, who are each presented to the audience. They step out of character, take their bows and step back into character.
The story offers the whole nine yards of Victorian Gothic complications. A brilliant, mad, opium-addicted choir master (Vatican Lokey) is obsessed with his virginal piano student, Rosa Bud (Ruth Ann Wild). However, Rosa is engaged to marry the choir master's nephew, Edwin Drood (played by Amy Alvarez, who in the Royale Company is an actress specializing in male impersonation). Meanwhile, the minister of the church (Bert Pigg) brings home as his wards a swarthy, exotic brother and sister from Ceylon (Russell Hodgkinson and Terri Gervais). Various complications involve the town mayor (George Spelvin), Gravedigger Durdles (Dane Rhodes), his deputy (Clayton Mazoué) and other upright and not-so-upright subjects of the queen.
The costumes (by Linda Fried) are sumptuous, as are the faux naive settings. A trip to a London opium den run by the notorious Princess Puffer (Ann Casey) results in a thrilling phantasmagoria of naked (sort of) succubae, who materialize from within the very pillows of the couch.
The 15 musical numbers are well sung (though I sometimes had trouble making out the words). Co-directors Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey keep this complex production smooth and well paced. Credit for the tasteful choreography goes to Karen Hebert.
Ultimately, what makes Edwin Drood a delight is not so much the complicated premise (actors playing hammy actors who are doing a show a hundred years ago) -- though that does make for a liberating sort of chaos. It is the gradual effect of the personalities of this large, talented cast, all of whom are clearly having a great old time with their parts. By the time the play within the play halts so the audience can be canvassed for an ending, an unusual, appealing mood of camaraderie and silliness has settled over the theater. To paraphrase her highness. "We were definitely amused."