The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charles Dickens had “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” only half-written when he died in 1870. Since then, people who wonder about that sort of thing have wondered how the story was going to turn out.

In the mid-1980s, Rupert Holmes wrote a Broadway musical based on the incomplete story, in which a Victorian England theater troupe at a rowdy music hall portrays the story and then — here’s the gimmick — allows the audience to choose whom they think the murderer is. There are seven possible endings to the show, and the way the audience votes is really the ending they perform.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is as much about the 19th-century English music hall scene as it is a retelling of Dickens’s half-finished (and, frankly, half-interesting) story. It’s a play-within-a-play, as all the cast members play British actors who are performing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” William Cartwright (Max Robinson) is the “chairman,” or MC, who speaks to the audience, narrates the story, and interrupts the show to crack one-liners. Cast members frequently break character (well, they break out of their “Edwin Drood” characters into their Victorian England actor characters) and sing songs wholly unrelated to the plot of the show. (One fellow even sings a song about how his character is so minor, one wonders why Dickens even included him.)

The story is of Edwin Drood (Alice M. Vienneau — in the music-hall days, male impersonators were all the rage), betrothed to Rosa Bud (Marie Danvers), whom he has known all his life. His uncle, John Jasper (Robert Gallagher), who has an opium-induced Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going, is jealous, as he has always wanted Rosa for himself. Foreigner Neville Landless (Jonathan Hammond) wants her, too, though, and if the prime suspect when Edwin suddenly goes missing after a terrible rainstorm.

That’s about as much as Dickens wrote. The rest, comprising most of the second act, is the chairman and fellow cast members talking to the audience, getting our take on what happened, and then performing whichever ending we voted for, complete with a couple more songs tailored to fit the particular culprit.

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production is top-notch, as usual, with astounding sets and costumes, fine vocal performances, and professionalism all the way through. The problem is that the show they’re doing simply isn’t very good, based on a shaky foundation and written as if Holmes wasn’t sure whether he wanted to tell the Edwin Drood story or the English music-hall era story. Dickens’s story was a generic mystery at best, and completing it for him doesn’t help it much.

The show keeps falling back on the novel’s incomplete nature, as if pointing out how unusual the show is will somehow make up for it being difficult to follow and frequently uninteresting. (“Yeah, there’s nothing happening here — but our story has no ENDING, for crying out loud! Look how original we are for even DOING this show!”) It’s not enough to be daring and different; you have to be good, too. And this mediocre staging of Dickens’s mediocre story is, well, mediocre.

This play won the Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as a few other prizes. Must have been a slow year, I'm guessing.