News Column

Muhlenberg's 'Edwin Drood' is big brassy fun

October 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 30--It may not have the import of "A Christmas Carol" or "Oliver Twist," but "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Dickens' final unfinished novel as produced by Rupert Holmes (of "Escape: The Pina Colada Song" fame), has proved a vehicle for an entertaining evening of theater.

The production of the musical at Muhlenberg College, directed by Charles Richter, is a big, brassy affair, bursting at the seams with the energetic 40-person cast, whose members spill up and down the aisles of the college's Empie Theatre interacting with the audience.

The concept is a "play within a play." The actors at the Music Hall Royale theater troupe are performing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," meaning audience members effectively become part of the show from the moment they sit down.

No detail is overlooked, from the cutout of Queen Victoria perched in the box seat to the impressive train engine that rolls onstage, headlight ablaze.

Everything is larger than life, from the wafts of dry ice that fill the opium den to the stage-filling act one ender "Off to the Races."

The voices are big too. From Miss Rosa Bud, played opening night by Samantha Simon, who lent her operatic soprano to a lovely "Moonfall," to Caitlin Sing as the Princess Puffer, who rocked the rafters with her heartfelt "The Garden Path to Hell."

And the acting is big, from the pregnant pause moments when the lights flash and the entire cast stops and looks out meaningfully at the audience all at the same time, to the antics of Emily Philips and Alan Mendez as deliciously over-the-top sister and brother Helena and Neville Landless.

Joe Marx gets to both be slightly crazed as the lovelorn Jasper John, and deliver a mean patter song in "Both Sides of the Coin," with an equally nimble George Primavera. Primavera is a standout as the chairman and emcee of the proceedings, ably directing the audience's attention and holding the proceedings together with aplomb.

Stefanie Goldberg is cool and self-possessed as the female actor playing the male role of Edwin Drood.

Kudos go to actors in smaller roles as well. Comic turns by Dan McKenna as Durdles and Zachary Love as Deputy are hysterical and keep things moving along.

Realistic-looking backdrops by Tim Averill and wonderful period costumes by Nicole Wee wonderfully evoke the 19th century.

The nominal story line has Drood disappearing on Christmas Eve., but not before giving ample reason for the half the cast to be a suspect in the murder -- if there even was a murder.

That's when the audience gets to vote on the outcome and the actors comes around to aid in the voting process in which the audience chooses a murderer and a pair of lovers. And from what happened the night I was there, all bets are off. But the cast enthusiastically embraced the somewhat unorthodox ending.

The voting, although it's done fairly briskly, does add to the length of the show, making it stretch past 2 1/2 hours.

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

Kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

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