SANTA BARBARA — Rupert Holmes has prolific talents he practices in solitary confinement, without accomplices.
One of the better-known ones is inventing such mystery thrillers as "Accomplice" and "Solitary Confinement." Another is writing popular songs. Less known is his gift for musical theater. With his taste for thrillers, he would pick Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," as the basis for his 1985 musical, "Drood."
With a twist, of course.
"Drood" won the Tony for best musical when it moved to Broadway, and even though the piece can't be called a great musical, it is a great deal of good old music hall fun. Holmes found a perfect foil for his talent. Since Dickens died before he had revealed Drood's killer in his novel, why not let the audience decide who the culprit might be?
Great idea, that would be even greater if it did not draw out the second act so much or get so confusing. Or so it seems in the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera production that opened over the weekend at the Lobero Theatre.
"Drood" is a rousing cheer-the-hero, hiss-the-villain affair in which there's little doubt about the identity of either. Most of the fun is had with Holmes' construct of a play within a play, so that we find ourselves at London's Music Hall Royale, sometime near the end of the 19th Century, cheering and hissing and taking proprietary pleasure in the backstage shenanigans of these Victorian artistes .
Their real-life disputes and foibles provoke only contempt and indignation in our put-upon chairman, the amiable Mr. William Cartwright (Barry Dennen). But there's just no separating Mr. Hitchens from his bottle or Miss Nutting from her temper tantrums. Such children. Dear, dear.
These minor disturbances enliven the prevailing spirit of vaudeville and remind us that Holmes is a comedy writer who can dish out the music hall patter ("You are next to a fool"--"Pleased to meet you") along with clever if somewhat perishable songs. "Moonfall" is his one striking, sinister ballad, but it's the comic items we remember most: "The Wages of Sin" (sung to a fare-thee-well by Kelly Britt as mysterious Princess Puffer), "Perfect Strangers" (in which Edwin and Rosa Bud declare their lack of fascination with each other), "Both Sides of the Coin," "A Private Investigation" and even a song called "Out on a Limerick" which is where we seem to be a lot, but having a good time.
The production at the Lobero has borrowed the functional sets Bob Shaw designed for the 1988 California Music Theatre production of "Drood." Combined with Todd A. Jared's mood lighting, an array of Victorian finery from Glendale Costumes and brisk direction by James O'Neil, it adds up to a good-looking as well as inventive spectacle. Barbara Hirsch provides balanced sound design and Michael Barnard's choreography respects its non-dancers (though "Jasper's Vision" ballet is better than that).
Karyl Lynn Burns is good when she's being huffy Miss Nutting, less so when she's being Nutting in the "trouser role" of Drood. Dennen's exasperated chairman could have more fun with his woes and Mary Dombek is a somewhat dour Rosa, a fact that doesn't diminish Michael G. Hawkins' lascivious designs on her as John Jasper.
He's a dependably broad and leering villain. A good word too for Brad Gooding, who manages to make his bashful Bazzard endearing despite the odds. But the superior talent in this company is the big-throated Britt, whose brassy Princess sings with as much range and pleasure as she acts.
The ruse of having the audience pick up the pieces of Dickens' puzzle and "vote" on the murderer finally works better in theory than practice. It's too manipulative. We're told there really are several possible endings to this piece, but are they needed? The audience seems more grateful to be asked to shape the outcome than interested in its results. The real fun here is getting there.
* "Drood," Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends March 8. $24.50-$26; (800) 549-0909, (805) 963-0761. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Barry Dennen: Chairman (Mr. William Cartwright)
Elise Unruh: Maestra Priscilla Purcell
Stephen Dombek: Maestro Nicholas Michael
John Peale: Stage Manager; Barkeep (Mr. James Throttle)
Michael G. Hawkins: John Jasper (Mr. Clive Paget)
Karyl Lynn Burns: Edwin Drood (Miss Alice Nutting)
Kelly Britt: The Princess Puffer (Miss Angela Pysock)
Robert Machray: Durdles (Mr. Nick Cricker)
Pep C. Torres: Deputy (Master Nick Cricker)
Mary Dombek: Rosa Bud (Miss Deirdre Peregrine)
Susie Lockheed: Lehto Helena Landless (Miss Janet Conover)
Michael Sollazzo: Neville Landless (Mr. Victor Grinstead)
Fred Lehto: The Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Mr. Cedrick Moncrieffe)
Brad Gooding: Bazzard (Mr. Phillip Bax)
Benjamin Dover: Mayor Thomas Sapsea (Mr. James Hitchens)
Paula Driscoll: Flo (Miss Florence Gill)
Beth Carlson: Shade of Drood (Miss Christine Lyon)
Scott Allan: Shade of Jasper (Mr. Harry Sayle)
A musical with book, lyrics and music by Rupert Holmes, based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," presented by Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. Director James O'Neil. Sets Bob Shaw. Lights Todd A. Jared. Sound Barbara Hirsch. Costumes Glendale Costumes. Hair and Makeup Sybil Thornbury. Musical director/Conductor Elise Unruh. Chorus master Stephen Dombek. Choreographer/Assistant director Michael Barnard. Stage manager John F. Hale.