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THEATER REVIEW

The secret to his success is who votes

A different spin on a Dickens classic gives 'audience participation' a whole new meaning.

September 19, 2007|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

For democratic principles, it's hard to top "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." In Rupert Holmes' musical adaptation of the 1870 novel, left vexingly incomplete by Charles Dickens' death, the audience votes on the ending. As the Musical Theatre Guild concert staging at the Alex Theatre on Monday demonstrated, that is the secret to this Tony winner's reach.

First seen in 1985 in Central Park, "Drood" is a play-within-a-play about a dotty provincial troupe performing Dickens' unfinished opus amid backstage havoc. We mingle with actors wearing designer Shon LeBlanc's costumes, until the chairman (Roy Leake Jr.) calls the proceedings to order and this "musicale with dramatic interludes" is underway.

Director Calvin Remsberg banks his cast on either side of a simple platform, where he agreeably poses and perambulates them. Choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza has limited chances for invention, but his musical staging is certainly serviceable.

Holmes' meta-theatrical concept is exceptionally clever, and his hoary gags and double-sided characters often enliven it. The attractive score ranges from surefire ("Don't Quit While You're Ahead," "Moonfall") to pseudo-Sondheim ("A British Subject," "Both Sides of the Coin"). There's much extraneous material in the book and songs, and Holmes' pop chops are detectable beneath the overtones of musical director Tom Griffin's zesty orchestra.

Leake, less antic than originator George Rose but equally sly, makes an ideal facilitator. Dan Callaway's full-throttled attack compensates for the blurred bipolarity of his villainous John Jasper. The marvelous Mary Van Arsdel burns up the joint as opium-den maven Princess Puffer, and, in the evening's most atypical coup, Eydie Alyson embraces ingénue Rosa Bud's upper-register duties with focused aplomb.

Jennifer Gordon and William Martinez make unlikely, delightfully over-the-top Ceylonese orphans, while Michael Kostroff's ultra-loopy Reverend Crisparkle recalls the fabled vaudevillians of yore.

On Monday, they tackled the property as deftly as possible with limited rehearsals and an oversized venue, where erratic head-mikes muddied the lyrics. In the 19th century, the challenge would be hearing naturally projected voices over rowdy crowds. Here, the challenge was discerning the words coming from the overhead speakers.

"Drood" plays Sunday at the intimate Scherr Forum Theatre in Thousand Oaks. Here's hoping that this criminal auditory drawback is resolved with as much ingenuity as Holmes uses to let the audience adjudicate this flawed but festive musical plebiscite.

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'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

Where: Scherr Forum Theatre, Countrywide Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $39

Contact: (805) 583-8700

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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