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Rose Blooms in Comedy

February 14, 1988|RODERICK MANN

"I tend to distrust standing ovations," said George Rose. "I find that it's usually audiences who have given you nothing back during a show who stand to applaud at the end."

Well, welcome to the home of On-Your-Feet-Jack-Show-Them-How-Much-We-Liked-It school of theatergoing, where standing ovations are the norm rather than the exception.

Anyway, the chances of Rose not getting a standing ovation when he opens in the musical "Drood" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday would seem to be small. The show has already enjoyed popular success in New York, where it won five Tonys and nine Drama Desk awards.

And this is a show where audiences have to give something back. Or it simply doesn't work.

Based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (the celebrated author died while writing it), librettist-lyricist-composer Rupert Holmes has come up with 15 possible endings as to who killed the title character, which are then put to the audience for a vote.

This is done--or should be done--amid much cheering and booing and hissing of villains.

"Sometimes an audience feels intimidated at having to participate in the play," said Rose the other day. "So it's up to me to encourage them. I try to get an immediate rapport going. And sometimes an audience that starts off badly becomes a good one. You never know how people will react."

A two-time Tony winner (for "Drood" and his Alfred Doolittle in the revival of "My Fair Lady"). Rose, now 67, plays Mr. William Cartwright, the florid-faced chairman of the Royale, a 19th-Century English music hall where the show is being staged, making it a play within a play.

First approached about the venture in 1984, Rose immediately liked the idea of the show being set in a Victorian music hall. But, because of the alternate endings, he found it very confusing.

"It wasn't easy. The play read: 'If Rosa is chosen by the audience, turn to blue page 26' and 'If Neville is chosen, turn to yellow page 28.' Things like that. And, of course, I never know who the murderer is until all the votes are counted."

When the musical first opened in New York, it was called "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

"But people were confused," said Rose. " Mystery and musical didn't seem to go together. And because it was Dickens, some thought they were in for a serious evening, whereas it's a fun affair. So now it's just 'Drood.' "

With, as some wag wrote, audiences deciding who the Dickens dunit.

Mention George Rose to most veteran theatergoers and the response is almost always the same: a smile and a knowing nod. Mention his name to other actors and they tend to fall about praising him. And what's interesting is that this British-born actor has spent almost all his career on the stage, largely eschewing movies and TV--though he's done his share of both.

Rose has said: "I get such a feeling of satisfaction when I leave the theater after a good evening, when the audience has been responsive. Whereas I've never left a TV studio at the end of a day's work with anything but a profound sense of relief. They say, well, it's all acting. But one is acting for people and the other is acting for a machine.

"I do feel that," he said. "I love theater; I feel safe there. A lot of people have felt that way. Gertrude Lawrence, you know, used to take her own bed and sheets to the theater and sleep there in the afternoon. Then she'd awaken and order something to eat and do the evening show."

Rose came to New York from London in 1961 in "A Man for All Seasons" with Paul Scofield (Rose played the Common Man) and appeared in some notable Shakespeare revivals--among them "Much Ado About Nothing" with John Gielgud and "Hamlet" with Richard Burton--as well as such plays as "The Royal Hunt of the Sun."

But it is in musicals and comedies that he is happiest. His Alfred Doolittle in the 1976 revival of "My Fair Lady" was "the definitive performance," according to one critic--and he was a memorable model Major General in "The Pirates of Penzance."

"I think comedy is what I do best," he said. "I don't think I'm all that good at anything else. But there seems to be the feeling that you're rather less than out of the top drawer if all you can do is make people laugh.

"When I did 'You Can't Take it With You' with that fine actress Elizabeth Wilson, she said: 'I do hope we get the chance to work again--perhaps in something more serious.'

"And that shook me, the attitude that to be serious is more important than being jolly."

It was during his tour with Katharine Hepburn in "Coco"--the musical based on the life of Gabrielle Chanel--that Rose made his first observation about standing ovations.

"If you get one, you know the audience probably has not understood the play. When I was on tour, I knew that many in the audience had no idea who Chanel was. So Alan Lerner's lines went over their heads. During the show, I got the impression that quite a few people were actually asleep. But at the end, they all stood because Katharine Hepburn was in the show."

Whether people stand or not, Rose thinks they're in for an entertaining evening with "Drood."

"What makes the show so good is that it involves the audience in a way that can't be done in any other medium," he said. "It reminds you that the theater is a meeting place between actors and audience."

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