'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' review: same as it ever was

Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block in Roundabout

Will Chase and Stephanie J. Block in Roundabout Theatre Company's, " The Mystery of Edwin Drood." (Nov. 9, 2012) (Credit: Joan Marcus )

Long before we all could vote people off the island for our own entertainment, there was "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Rupert Holmes wrote the book and the score for the 1985 show, which was based on the 1870 novel that Charles Dickens never finished.

The gimmick is that the audience gets to vote the ending -- that is, solve the murder. When I first saw the show at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, I deduced that, after the vote, all the thing needed was a beginning and a middle.

"Drood" moved to Broadway and went on to make many, many people happy for a long time. It also won five Tony Awards, including best musical. I mention the credits because, really, this is one of those Martian experiences in which either everyone in the theater is from another planet or I am.

This is a novelty item, tricked-up with cutesy tangents as a play-within-a-play at a provincial English music hall. Everyone in director Scott Ellis' wonderful-looking production works very hard at jollying up the audience at the start, rallying a sing-a-long and, ultimately, conducting the voting. Then, the murderer confesses in song.

The show does have some jaunty, quasi-operetta music with beautiful harmonic blends and a ravishing cast -- including Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer, madam of the opium den, and Jessie Mueller as the slinky-to-her-eyebrows Helena Landless, who, with her brother (Andy Karl) brings a bit of Colonial commentary as the exotics from Ceylon. Jim Norton maneuvers around the fast-patter songs with aplomb as the emcee; Stephanie J. Block is authoritative as Drood, the young gentleman who disappears. His beloved (Betsy Wolfe) is coveted by the opium fiend-music teacher (Will Chase).

The elaborate painted flats by Anna Louizos appear designed to stay in the theater for a long time, while William Ivey Long's costumes are crazy-good with brocades and bustles. Warren Carlyle's choreography includes drug-induced hallucinations with charming chorines.

Instead of trusting the characters and the mystery to build the suspense, however, Holmes aims for the campy, tiresome and childish. To vote, one presumably cares about who does what to whom. Considering Dickens' storytelling genius, the real mystery is why this isn't fun.

WHAT "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

INFO $42-$137; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Novelty item, well done but tiresome

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