John Jasper is an old-school villain, right down to his handlebar moustache. He leers with a cocked eyebrow, his hand crooked like a raptor's claw above his head. Horrified, his prey, Rosa Bud, turns her face away, a dainty knuckle clenched between her teeth, as a brief yet operatic gasp escapes her lips.To be sure, you wouldn't have gone to an 1870s London music hall, where The Mystery of Edwin Drood is set, looking for subtleties or subtext—not when the genre's main innovation boiled down to letting folks get smashed during a floor show. Shakespeare be damned: beery sentimentalism, rousing sing-alongs, broad comedy, and melodrama were the orders of the day.
So they are again in this raucous Theatre Raleigh season opener. The denizens of the Music Hall Royale and their avuncular Chairman (John Paul Almon) hail and accost the audience before candidly admitting, in the spirited opening number "There You Are," "We can but hope your faith is blind in us ... A warmly wicked frame of mind in us."
In playwright and composer Rupert Holmes's play within a play, the hall's regulars are premiering an adaptation of the final novel by Charles Dickens, despite the notable drawback that Dickens died before writing the ending. Holmes and the actors ingeniously work around this snag by letting the audience vote each night on the murderer's identity, which they subsequently stage.
Director DJ Salisbury indulges his cast of eleven—halved from the original size, with Holmes's onsite guidance—in the juicy blood-and-thunder of true melodrama and wit. Adam Poole twitches with unstable laughter as a hissable Jasper, and Alexandra May's luminous voice befits ingénue Rosa in the gothic seduction song, "Moonfall." Poole and Almon milk the comic vaudeville of the tongue-twisting "Both Sides of the Coin," and Sally Mayes, as the music hall's "grand dame," sappily moralizes in the sing-along "The Wages of Sin."
These precede a climactic confrontation between the enigmatic title character (a crisp Lauren Kennedy), Jasper, and another rival, the nostril-flaring Neville Landless (Jacob Dickey), in the mid-show tour de force "No Good Can Come from Bad."
Even with significant cuts in text, roles, songs, and scenes, this adaptation goes well over the ninety minutes cited in publicity without solving several problems. Mike Raab's likeable Bazzard remains a theatrical afterthought, and without an intermission, a closing musical twist seems overlong.
Still, this abridged tour through the history of musical theater closes the case on at least one mystery: why Drood has been so rarely staged. The streamlining of the cast in this version should make a work with a lot going for it more attractive to future producers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beer Hall Kitsch."