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STAGE REVIEW : A Dickens of a Time at 'Drood'

February 22, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Back in Victoria's day, quality folk went to the theater and common folk went to the music hall. Music hall didn't promise anything high-minded. The audience would groan at the jokes, ogle the ballet girls, sing along with the tunes and swap insults with the master of ceremonies, known as the chairman.

That is still not a bad recipe for an evening's entertainment, as proved by "Drood" at Pasadena Civic Auditorium. It warms up the hall more effectively than anything else that the California Music Theatre has presented there, despite the fact that a lot of the numbers go in one ear and out the other.

Rupert Holmes wrote the numbers and the book. The idea is that we're watching a English troupe of 100 years ago present its version of Dickens' unfinished "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," complete with original songs and a chance for the audience to vote on the murderer.

Saturday night's designated villain turned out to be the very same person selected by the Broadway audience the night I saw the show there in '86. But we are assured that the management actually does count the ballots and provide the appropriate finale, one of eight or nine in stock.

In any case, the audience enjoys being brought in on the case, like delegates at an Iowa caucus (with floor action to match). It also enjoys being insulted by George Rose, without whom it would be hard to imagine "Drood" on either coast.

As narrator, ringmaster and emergency actor, Rose simultaneously conveys the impression that (a) he is absolutely enchanted to be appearing before such a delightful audience and that (b) he has never seen such a group of ninnies in his life. When Mr. Rose smacks down his chairman's gavel, there's the distinct sense that he is auctioning us off.

His disdain is irresistible, his jokes as time-proof as your great-grandfather's watch. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Rose on a gaslit stage, without amplification. He is the real thing.

"Drood" is only a pass at the real thing, and a fairly tinny one in the first act. The fun is too facetious, the songs too fleet--and badly miked, in Gary Davis' Pasadena staging. Dickens' murder plot seems pure cardboard, even during those scenes when it could assert its own kinky reality, which could be the best joke of all. "Moonfall," for example, ought to be a salon ballad edged in black. Here it's just a ballad.

Act II does better in reminding us that gaslit melodrama, once the audience is through laughing at it, can have its power. At the same time, more fun is had with the idea that this is a provincial repertory company putting on this week's bill. The floor vote creates a friendly hubbub, and the finale works out charmingly, at least the one employed at Saturday's performance.

Mr. Rose is the main event, in performance terms, but Davis' cast is easy enough to believe as his repertory company, some of them available for private interviews after the performance. (Karen Morrow visits with certain of her clients in the audience even before it's over.)

Terry Lester is the villain of the piece, but not necessarily the murderer, and Stacy Sullivan is the object of his obsessions, the beauteous Rosa Bud. James Dybas and Lorelle Brina are the strange, hot-tempered twins from Ceylon. Ray Stewart is the kindly, perhaps, Rev. Crisparkle.

Patrick Richwood plays an Artful Dodger type named Nick Cricker. Edwin Drood is perkily played (before his demise) by Lisa Robinson. This is the Victorian theater, remember. Edwin becomes a "trousers part."

Bob Shaw's set is also mock-Victorian. It has a false proscenium arch, two onstage side boxes and a runway. Besides being atmospheric, this provides more clearly-framed stage pictures than the kind of set which bleeds off into the dark. Back in the 1880s they knew that if you can see an actor, you can hear him.

'DROOD' A musical, based on Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," presented by the California Music Theatre at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Book, lyrics and music by Rupert Holmes. Director Gary Davis. Musical director Jeff Rizzo. Choreographer Patti Colombo. Scenery Bob Shaw. Costumes Garland Riddle. Lighting Ward Carlisle. With George Rose, Paul Ainsley, Terry Lester, Lisa Robinson, Stacy Sullivan, Diana Kavilis, Leslie Woodies, Lorelle Brina, James Dybas, Ray Stewart, Karen Morrow, Robert Machray, Patrick Richwood, Richard Byron, Malcolm Perry, Reggie Phoenix, Jim Ruttman, Nora Frank, Natasha Kautsky, Renee Stork, Whitney Rydbeck, Joe Foronda, Dan Haggard, Nanette Hofer, Stephanie Huffman, Lena Marie, Kevin Pariseau, Alan Rosenbaum. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday- Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets $15-$30. Closes Match 5. 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.

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