News Column

Help pick the ending of Muhlenberg's 'Edwin Drood'

October 24, 2013


Oct. 24--Summon your Sherlock Holmes skills. It's up to the audience to choose the murderer in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," opening Friday at Muhlenberg College.

In Rupert Holmes' Tony Award-winning musical, the audience is polled three-quarters of the way through the show to determine the ending to Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel.

"This show has a very grand elevated style and a wonderful improv quality to it," director Charles Richter says. "Dickens was shaping it to be a great book except we don't know how it ends."

An ensemble of 37 will enlist the audience's help to finish the story in "Drood."

"The main hook of the show is that the audience determines what will happen," says Richter. "As far as I know, that makes 'Drood' unique among musicals."

The music is by Holmes, a pop composer best known for his 1970s hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and features the haunting ballad "Moonfall," which has been performed by various artists, including Barbra Streisand. Richter calls the score "grand on a musical scale."

"It's all types of music from goofy novelty songs to stuff that's almost operatic," Richter says. "Holmes is gifted at writing hooks that are very catchy. The music is not that well known but you fall in love with it."

Dickens began writing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in 1870 but died the same year. The novel was to be published in 12 installments, but he completed only six. Holmes decided to used the Dickens story as a frame for his musical.

Richter says it's a show he has wanted to do for some time and was inspired by its revival on Broadway last year.

"It was a big success in New York and I had the right people to do it," he says. "The musical score is quite demanding and the show requires everyone to speak in a British accent."

The show is set up as a play within a play, in which the actors at the Theatre Royale attempt to complete the unfinished story. When the actors reach the point in the story at which Dickens stopped, they turn to the audience to determine how the story will end.

Richter says the audience must decide who is the murderer, who is a detective in disguise and a pair of lovers.

"There are nine different options and each is completely different except each has a big climatic number," Richter says. "Since it's a musical, it has to be happy and a couple gets married. No matter who is picked to get married they sing the same song."

He says the challenge for actors is they must rehearse an entire hour of material for potential endings, much of which may never be performed.

"I'm amazed at our students' abilities to take it all," Richter says.

He admits the show was written to favor certain outcomes but says the cast will perform whatever ending gets the most votes. The results will be posted in the lobby after the show.

He adds there is an element of competition among the actors to be chosen for one of the ending roles.

"There will be some electioneering," Richter says. "Everyone wanted to be picked. Actors have very big egos."

Senior Stefanie Goldberg, who plays Edwin Drood, says that's only natural since the "winners" get to perform an extra song at the end of the show.

"It's just as exciting for us as it is for the audience," Goldberg says.

Richter has staged the show in a British Music Hall-style and it features a little PG-rated bawdiness.

"It's a gothic thriller with lots of smoke and special effects," he says. "There is a graveyard and an opium den with a hallucinatory ballet. There are all kinds of hijinks and it's a great deal of fun."

The 19th century set by Tim Averill features elaborate flat painted scenery by Emily Baldasarra.

The production features musical direction by Ed Bara and choreography by Jeffrey Peterson. Conductor Vince Di Mura leads an 18-piece orchestra.

Nicole Wee designed the costumes which required feverish work on bustles, Richter says.

-- "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Oct. 31, Nov. 1-2, and 2 p.m. Sunday, and Nov. 2-3, Muhlenberg College, Empie Theatre, Baker Center, 22nd and Chew streets, Allentown. Tickets: $22; $8, students., 484-664-3333.

NCC Presents 'Rent'

Northampton Community College will present Jonathan Larson's rock opera "Rent" Oct. 24-27.

NCC instructor Bill Mutimer is directing the sung-through rock musical that tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive in New York City's Lower East Side, under the shadow of AIDS. The show is inspired by Puccini's opera "La Boheme."

The production features Tom Kennebeck as Mark Cohen, a struggling documentary filmmaker and the narrator of the show; David Kunz as Roger Davis, a guitarist and singer who is HIV positive, and 17-year-old Kayla Mulkern as Mimi M rquez, a drug user who also is HIV positive.

The show opened Off-Broadway in 1996 and was an immediate popular and critical hit and won the Pulitzer Prize. It moved to Broadway three months later, and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. The show ran for 12 years until 2008, making it the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history.

-- "Rent," 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24-26 and 3 p.m. Oct. 27, Northampton Community College, Lipkin Theatre, Kopecek Hall, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem Township. Free, with a donation of non-perishable food items or a scholarship contribution. Reservation suggested. 610-861-5524.

'Gifts' by The Independent Eye

California-based artists Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller will present their original production "Gifts" Saturday at Touchstone Theatre.

Bishop and Fuller founded The Independent Eye Theatre in California in 1974, and have written more than 60 produced plays. They are two-time recipients of National Endowment for the Arts Playwriting Fellowships.

In "Gifts," which premiered last March, Bishop and Fuller use puppets and props, including veils, a bowling trophy, an electric sander, a steering wheel and a pepper grinder, to tell three interconnected stories of love, loss, aging and change.

The couple create characters at various stages of life, ranging from a young couple trapped on an endless freeway leading them back to another try at life; a mid-lifer who dreams of a prestigious award that ends with him sanding a rusty fence and seniors who move into a dingy third-floor walkup to discover something magical in a cardboard box and must decide if they want to risk accepting a strange gift.

Unlike their other larger shows, Bishop and Fuller created this show specifically for intimate venues.

Fuller says the couple wanted "the immediacy of an event that's more like a party or artistic salon."

-- "Gifts," 8 p.m. Saturday, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. Tickets: pay-what-you-will. No reservations. The couple's books and DVDs of their shows will be for sale. 610-867-1689.



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