‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ @ Studio 54

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I once did a book report on The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 8th grade because I procrastinated and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Frankly, I don’t remember much, except that the book was unfinished and I got a good grade. While I haven’t picked up the book since, the novel by Charles Dickens caught my attention once again when I discovered Rupert Holmes’ unique musical adaptation. Since Dickens died leaving half the book unwritten – and leaving no authoritative record of “who did it” – Holmes created a novel concept of having the audience vote to determine the show’s ending. (The original production’s tagline was “The Solve-It-Yourself Broadway Musical”).

The musical, also known as just Drood (or as I like to call it, Murder She Drood), is presented as an English music hall with actors playing a Victorian troupe performing the Dickens novel, led by a Chairman (a master of ceremonies, of sorts) to help keep the audience informed of facts, and to keep the show running as smoothly as possible. The knowing metatheatrical nature and general rollicking frivolity behind Holmes’ concept made the show a success at the Delacorte in Central Park, as well as its Tony-winning run at the Imperial.

The musical is back on Broadway, courtesy of Roundabout Theatre, with a wonderful cast headlined by the legendary Chita Rivera at Studio 54. While I didn’t love this production as much as many others have, I had a good time, especially with a stellar cast to help gloss over some of the problematic elements of the piece.

The resulting show is something of a joyous mess. The score is filled with music hall style turns, tuneful and entertaining. There are too many songs (about a half dozen could easily be cut), and not enough plot, and Dickens’ novel ultimately becomes an afterthought in this theatrical exercise. However, it is the execution of the concept and the free-for-all voting experience that makes the show a pleasant divertissement.

The legendary Chita Rivera is game but not quite right for the Princess Puffer, with a Cockney accent that veers somewhere between Brooklyn and Staten Island. However, she is so mesmerizing onstage, it’s almost impossible to look at anyone else whenever she’s around. Stephanie J. Block is the title character; hilarious and spirited with a voice to last for days – that famed E is no joke.

Will Chase is near-perfect as Jasper, finding the comedy in the split personality (and likeliest murderer) and singing exceptionally well. However, his pronounced breathing between phrases drove me nuts. Jim Norton is the Chairman, charming but surprisingly subdued. Betsy Wolfe is Rosa Bud and scores with the hauntingly beautiful “Moonfall,” (and her Jennifer Tilly-esque delivery of the line “Good one, Helena” should never be forgotten). Peter Benson, Gregg Edelman and Robert Creighton are also on hand to supply some distinctive period comedy flair.

The company mingles with the audience in the moments leading up to the rollicking opening number, but the show lags and doesn’t reach this same pinnacle until after the rousing “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” when the narrative ends and the concept takes over. Nevertheless, there is much fun to be had, especially if you just show up for the second act.

For those who are interested, the night I saw the show, Helena Landless (the sublime Jessie Mueller) was voted Dick Datchery, Neville Landless (a game Andy Karl) was voted the murderer, and the Puffer and Bazzard were voted the lovers (made all the more raucous as Rivera, on the eve of her 80th birthday, pushed Peter Benson’s face into her bosom).

‘Assassins’ Benefit Concert at Studio 54

Back in 2004, I had made plans to see the 5-time Tony-winning revival of Weidman and Sondheim’s Assassins just after Roundabout announced an extension through the fall. Within a couple of weeks, the extension was rescinded and I ended up not being able to get there. Whenever the production was mentioned in conversation over the next 8 years, I felt a slight tinge of regret – something I don’t feel very often when I don’t see a particular show. I had been an admirer of the original off-Broadway cast album, and found Sondheim’s exploration into the psyche of assassins and would-be assassins compelling, chilling and ultimately fascinating. So I often kicked myself for having missed it.

Late one night this last August while loafing around on Twitter, an announcement came through my feed that Roundabout would be presenting a one night only benefit concert of Assassins reuniting the entire 2004 cast, with Joe Mantello returning as director and Paul Gemignani as musical director. I don’t know that I’ve ever dropped more than a $100 on a theatre ticket, but decided I would treat myself to a rear mezzanine seat for $150. (Others paid much, much more for the privilege). I figured, especially since at the time I had only just recounted my regrets of missing the production, that this was something I had to see. No excuses. And as it would turn out, my buddy, Twitter maven, Sondheim enthusiast and professional crier Tyler Martins, bought a ticket for the seat right next to me.

As we took our seats for the concert, I couldn’t believe that more than three months had passed and the evening was finally here. To say I was excited would be an understatement. The evening was a staged concert with music stands and binders, with actors attired in all-black mufti and the orchestra (playing Michael Starobin’s excellent orchestrations) onstage. However, with a book this strong and a score this astounding – to say nothing of the brilliant company (with a game Annaleigh Ashford filling in for Mary Catherine Garrison as Squeaky Fromme), it didn’t matter.

The cast was superlative. Becky Ann Baker was a show-stealing riot as Sara Jane Moore, Mario Cantone was an appropriately loose cannon on Samuel Byck’s mad-man ramblings. My first experience seeing Denis O’Hare on stage was this summer in the Shakespeare in the Park revival of Into the Woods. While I thought he less than ideal as the Baker, he is gobsmackingly brilliant as Charles Guiteau, the unsettlingly upbeat shooter of James A. Garfield (his song is based on the actual poem he delivered at the gallows). Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony as John Wilkes Booth was excellent in the Lincoln scene, but utterly astounding in the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris).

During “Another National Anthem”  Harris exited the stage and returned wearing a white tee-shirt as Oswald. This final scene, the culmination of the evening, is a fantasia in which the assassins past and future visit Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on November 22, 1963 to urge him to kill President Kennedy instead of committing suicide. Director Joe Mantello recreated the famed Zapruder film projection on Harris’ shirt, while the orchestra played the warped carnival waltz version of “Hail to the Chief.” This leads into “Something Just Broke,” a brilliant rumination by the show’s small chorus on the impact these assassins had on the rest of the world; how a major tragedy rattles us as a nation, leaves vivid memories like scars of where we were and what we were doing, and ultimately how we carry on (for me, I haven’t lived through an assassination attempt, but it brings to mind the events of 9/11).

I left Studio 54 numb, though I would have gladly paid for an encore.

“The People in the Picture”

I’m convinced Donna Murphy can do anything. I firmly believe this from having seen her past performances, however, the versatility of the two-time Tony winner never fails to surprises me every time. That she manages to captivate, entrance and devastate as Raisel (or Bubbie) in the otherwise forgettable The People in the Picture, now playing at Studio 54, is only a testament to her immense talent. Wearing a grey wig, glasses and a house dress, Ms. Murphy (who is one of the most gorgeous women on Broadway) is utterly convincing as a Polish immigrant and Jewish grandmother, a woman who adores her granddaughter and desires to pass down to her the truth of the Holocaust and her life before, during and after Nazi oppression and depravity, but whose health and mental faculties are fading fast.

Murphy alternates between the younger and older version of her character as fragments of her story are told. The transformation is stunning; the most subtle and nuanced shift in body language add or subtract fifty years in the blink of an eye. Murphy is also playing an actress and has the opportunity to partake in Yiddish theatre sketches and send-ups of old films, including one memorable scene as a Dybbuk. Ultimately Murphy is forced to rise above her material and carry the entire show on those thin shoulders. It’s not an easy burden to bear, but she does so with absolute professionalism and grace.

The idea behind The People in the Picture is admirable: a multi-generational family dealing with their internal troubles while stressing the importance of cultural identity and historic legacy. The ideas and ideals are so strong and ambition that it makes the show’s failure all the more disappointing. Iris Rainer Dart’s script is laden with cliches, hammy dialogue and is chock full of cheap sentiment. Raisel’s memories and recollections bring to life the title characters, theatre folk from her past. There is a lot of shtick, fragmented storytelling and an overall lack of clarity. (The memories from the picture: are they merely memories or are they ghosts haunting Raisel? If memories, how does Raisel’s long lost lover bring her closure?)

The score, with music by Mike Stoller or Artie Butler, is mostly unmemorable; an incohesive mix of klezmer and pastiche. Even worse are Dart’s lyrics, which are so rote and poorly rhymed they at times feel like parody. The nadir comes in the soliloquy “Red’s Dilemma”, in which the daughter expresses mixed emotions whether or not she should put her mother in a nursing home. However, there is one lovely song in the second act, “Selective Memory,” as Raisel sings to the specter of her long lost love Chaim about the strong memories she still holds onto. It provided the most genuine moment of emotion in the entire score.

Nicole Parker, who possesses a captivating voice, presents a woman facing the difficulties of becoming a parent to her own parent. Rachel Resneff as Maisel’s granddaughter, is supposed to be wise beyond her years but comes off completely disingenuous. The title characters, of Raisel’s Warsaw Gang (and supporting cast), are all archetypes and stereotypes; broadly drawn figures of larger-than-life theatre people. Alexander Gemignani and Christopher Innvar play the men of Raisel’s life, but have little to work with. Hal Robinson plays the dying impresario while Joyce Van Patten gets the one genuinely funny line in the whole show as an aging diva. Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien play off each other like old vaudevillians. They are all wonderful performers, but unable to rise above the material as Murphy does so effortlessly.

The musical’s second act is better than the abysmal first, most specifically for the final twenty minutes in which Raisel’s secrets are finally revealed. At the height of Nazi power and out of fear for her safety, Raisel gave up her daughter to save her life, then after the war took her back from the barren Gentile couple who took her in. The resentment and bitterness has existed between them, unspoken, ever since. This inevitable “truth will set you free” revelation is where the audience is finally told the truth in its entirety. Afterward comes the denouement and requisite deathbed scene. Even those around me who were suppressing laughter throughout much of the first act were getting choked up. This was The People in the Picture at its most compelling, but it was simply not enough.

“Brief Encounter” on Broadway

England. 1938. A railway station. A gust of wind. A speck of grit flies into a woman’s eye. These are the chain of events which instigate a genuine connection between two people, who happen to be married to others. This love is unexpected and they embark on a passionate, if intensely guarded affair, meeting every Thursday in the cafe where they met. This comes from the pen of Noel Coward, first as the one act play Still Life, part of the ten play cycle Life at 8:30 and later as the Oscar nominated classic Brief Encounter directed by David Lean. It’s an overwhelming exercise in restraint, no matter the incarnation.

This new stage incarnation of Brief Encounter now onstage at Studio 54 is, in short, an Anglophile’s dream. English vernacular, customs, emotional repression, the confines of station and class are all displayed onstage in ways both sublime and surreal. The heart of the story is this pained affair between the couple. Still waters run deep, and director Emma Rice has dipped into a bag of theatrical tricks to bring this story of restraint to unexpected and fanciful heights, finding ways of expressing the passion deep beneath the surface. The production, conceived and written by Rice (combining elements from both Still Life and Brief Encounter) originated at Kneehigh Theatre in Leeds, England and enjoyed success in the West End, St Ann’s Warehouse and the Guthrie before arriving on Broadway, with much of its cast intact.

One of the most impressive elements of Rice’s direction is the absolute sincerity given to the central relationship. Melodramatic material, especially from this bygone era, can easily be seen and played as camp or arch, but the characters are given great humanity by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. Instead of just putting Brief Encounter onstage, this work expands much of story with amusing meta-theatrics, clever projections and some other surprises which I won’t spoil here. In essence, it becomes part musical, part 39 Steps and part devastating. Contrasting comic relief is supplied by the stellar supporting cast, who play various roles as well as instruments in the onstage band. Annette McLaughlin is a production highlight as Myrtle, the cafe proprietress. Tall, lithe and funny, the production gives her the opportunity to show that there is practically nothing she can’t do. Dorothy Atkinson scores big laughs as her assistant Myrtle. Props also to ensemble member Damon Daunno, who sings much of the show’s music before, during and after the show.

One of the most important elements, aside from the projections, is the use of Noel Coward’s songs to underscore and heighten particular moments throughout. I was jarred by a couple of anachronistic moments; the song sung in 50s rock and roll style and a reference to Marlon Brando don’t sit well with something set in 1938. But overall, the result adds to the show’s charm. The stage show wisely reprises Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, used to popular effect in the 1945 film. While we’re on the subject, will someone please record a cast album? This is one play with music I would love to listen to.

I have one considerable reservation regarding the venue: the show should be in a smaller house. If you’re in the orchestra yes, I can see how one can get easily immersed. However, up in the mezzanine there was no audience interaction, no decor, no cucumber sandwiches; absolutely nothing to bring us into the atmosphere of the play. We couldn’t hear the band singing in the aisles pre-show, which seems to be a big part of the experience if you’re seated below. We saw them going from section to section, but no matter how hard we strained we couldn’t hear them until the show was about to start. (And I would just shave about five minutes from the running time, but that’s another minor quibble).

However, once the show gets started, it’s hard not to get swept away. And if you’re an old Anglophile like myself, you’ll find yourself quite taken. One last thing – when the play is over, head to the orchestra section bar. The cast heads to the back of the house for a post-show performance and I think you’ll want to stick around. (And the leggy McLaughlin is also on hand to serve sandwiches). The show is presented by Roundabout as a limited engagement, currently scheduled to close December 5.


I’ve long anticipated a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. The 1960 show, which took on the national frenzy over Elvis Presley’s drafting, was a sleeper hit and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Its success made Broadway stalwarts of director-choreographer Gower Champion, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and librettist Michael Stewart. The show brought Dick Van Dyke to the attention of Hollywood and made a bona fide Broadway star out of Chita Rivera. The musical has its share of detractors and granted it’s a well-worn property, but I’ve always found it pleasant. The score is quite memorable, in its mix of character songs and rock and roll parodies. The book has a great deal of charm and warmth, and in spite of some creaking it can still work. It’s never failed to entertain me. That is until now.

Bye Bye Birdie has been brought back to Broadway by way of the Roundabout Theatre Company in what is one of the most charmless, miscast and misdirected revivals of a musical I have ever seen. There was considerable hype surrounding this revival as it’s the first time the show has been on Broadway since the original closed in 1961. It is also the inaugural production of the new Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street. One can only hope that the theatre’s next tenant isn’t as colossal a disappointment.

There was excitement as the house lights went down and the orchestra struck up that familiar overture. That was short-lived. After a clever tableau establishing the MacAfee family behind a scrim came an unnecessary montage of video projections showing screaming fans and the revival’s Birdie, Nolan Gerard Funk, gyrating in period costume. For some reason, my heart started to sink. The broad, cartoonish nature of this prologue hinted that the powers that be didn’t trust the material. It turned out to be much worse.

TV star John Stamos is headlining as Albert Peterson, the nerdy mama’s boy composer and would-be English teacher. Stamos has tackled the Broadway musical in the revivals of How to Succeed, Cabaret and Nine, and his singing is somewhat pleasant, but too inconsistent. His acting consists of two-dimensional facial expressions and constant mugging. The show’s breakout hit song, “Put on a Happy Face” showcases Mr. Stamos in what looks to be an homage to Dick Van Dyke – if Dick Van Dyke suffered from St. Vitus’ Dance. The rest of the show he spends meandering around the stage pouting. Perhaps twenty years ago he might have made an appropriate Conrad, but he completely misses the mark as Albert.

Gina Gershon, who also showed up in Cabaret and scored good notices for her work in the very funny Boeing Boeing last season, is entirely out of her element. She cannot sing. She cannot dance. And she is entirely lost at sea performing musical comedy material. Instead of hitting the notes, she scoops, spins and rattles around the music with an unpleasant vibrato. On the rare occasions she’s actually on pitch, it’s still nothing to cheer about. She recently told reporters that the “Shriner’s Ballet” was cut because it was too “gang-rapey.” After several tepid high kicks and awkward spins, it became quite obvious that she just couldn’t have handled it. She also somehow manages to make Rose, for whom the audience should cheer, unnecessarily cold and unlikable. To her credit, Gershon was the hardest working of the leads, clearly trying to make sense of her character but ultimately falling remarkably short.

The role of Rose Alvarez was originally written to be Polish for Carol Haney. After Haney got sick, they signed Chita Rivera and made necessary rewrites. Rose is a Puerto-Rican American (by way of Allentown, PA) who is written without a single cultural stereotype, and in fact spoofs them in “Spanish Rose” late in the second act. Of all the talented actresses in New York City, there wasn’t one musical theatre actress of Hispanic descent that could have played the part? It would have been an ideal vehicle for Andrea Burns or Karen Olivo, et al.

Jayne Houdyshell, who gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Well, is merely adequate as Albert’s overbearing, racist mother Mae. She scores a few laughs but seeming somewhat uncomfortable in the part. The immensely talented Dee Hoty is entirely wasted in the non-role of Mrs. MacAfee. While always a welcome presence, Ms. Hoty deserves a better part in another musical. Allie Trimm, of last season’s 13, plays the ingenue Kim MacAfee. She gets off to a winning start in “How Lovely to be a Woman,” but is the victim of the monotony going on around her. Matt Doyle mostly blends into the scenery as Hugo while Nolan Gerard Funk plays Conrad Birdie like Ricky Nelson on a bad day.

The most egregious casting is Bill Irwin as Harry MacAfee. The role was originated by Paul Lynde, who put a definitive stamp on the part of Kim’s irascible, put-upon father. Irwin hasn’t a clue what he’s supposed to be doing with the character or with musical comedy, and compensates with bizarre, unintelligible line readings. (Not to mention the gothic horror that is his singing voice). The only way I can think to describe his performance is as an unsettling hybrid of William Shatner on crystal meth and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Mr Irwin was nothing short of brilliant with his Tony-winning triumph in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and fascinating in last season’s overrated Waiting for Godot. But his performance here is an epic fail for an otherwise stellar presence in New York theatre. The audience seemed to eat up his shameless, inappropriate shtick, but it also seemed that they were laughing at the show, not with it.

If there is anyone to blame for this mess, it is director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. For two and a half hours he has actors onstage singing and dancing without giving them any reason to do so. There is such incongruity and incompatibility that the principals seem more suited for a road company of Lifeboat. There is no chemistry between anyone and ultimately no reason the audience should care. The show is a heartfelt, gentle send up of late 50s culture and calls for someone like Gower Champion to guide it with a light touch and a stroke of genius. Longbottom’s presentation of period satire is akin to a child hammering a rectangular block into a circular hole. The show should be effervescent and fun. Instead it feels forced, contrived and joyless.

The dancing is bland and unoriginal, and some of the production numbers are distractingly unpolished. In the middle of the second act, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” comes out of nowhere and goes back there almost instantly. This particular number goes on far too long and lands with a dull thud, which applies to practically everything in this maelstrom. The powers that be pointlessly switched “Kids” and its reprise. “Spanish Rose” comes off as spiteful afterthought. By this point, no one cares. And just when you thought it was safe to leave the theatre, the show curtain flies up for a tacked-on rendition of the film’s insanely catchy title song leading into the curtain call.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes hammer home when the show is set, but instead of designing for character he has designed for cleverness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the migraine-inducing sea of color-coordinated pastels worn by the ensemble, who look like rejects from a flimsy Universal-International feature. Not helping matters at all is the hideous set by Andrew Jackness, which is made up of unsightly sliding panels and traveling set pieces. The iconic “Telephone Hour” is ruined by cluttered, busy phone booths that overwhelm the teenagers. Whether or not it was their intention, their work outwardly mocks the show and the period in which it’s set. While we’re talking design, the unflattering fright wig Ms. Gershon wears at the top of the show gives her an uncanny resemblance to Amy Winehouse.

Not everything was a total loss. It was nice to see teenagers playing teenagers and they sure give it their best. The ensemble boasts some folks I’ve enjoyed in other shows: namely Jim Walton (virtually unrecognizable as the bartender), John Treacy Egan and the always delicious Patty Goble. And then there was the precocious Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolph MacAfee, who was the only one with lines who seemed to have a grasp on what he was supposed to be doing.

In a big surprise, the orchestra sounds extraordinary with new charts by Jonathan Tunick that emulate Robert Ginzler’s originals. (Tunick was a protege of Ginzler, and the so-called “Ginzler flutes” in “Put on a Happy Face” are homaged in Tunick’s orchestration of “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from Follies). There are a whopping sixteen musicians listed in the Playbill. An orchestra this large is an unusual change of pace for Roundabout, who are notorious for skimping on the music.

Don’t be fooled by the cutesy advertising – the show is a bomb from the world go. If you’re looking to revisit this classic musical, you’d be better off waiting for your local high school or community production. Or if you need a quick fix, I suggest getting your hands on the superlative original cast album and having a listen at home. It’s worlds better than wasting your time and hard-earned money on the egg being laid by this Birdie at the Henry Miller.