Monday, April 30, 2018

Actors Theatre of Indiana's gothic fun: 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is completed in a tuneful, playful, specter-banishing way

I admired the indecisiveness, or perhaps the passive resistance, of the few audience members who dropped the entire ballot into the basket near the end of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre.

Fundamentally, of course, audience involvement ought never to be passive. This show goes further, inviting patrons to vote on their choice of the eponymous hero's killer to answer the perennial question of its genre: Whodunit?

Edwin Drood (Cynthia Collins) is the center of attention from a spectrum of acquaintances.
But to drop the whole ballot in the basket, oh well: maybe that's an inspired choice, because the frame setting of Rupert Holmes' boisterous musical comedy is an English music-hall troupe desperate to engage with its audience at every juncture. So whodunit in this context is a question whose answer is blowing in the madcap wind.

In the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, which opened over the weekend, the outsized outreach of the show was unstinting. Seen Sunday under DJ Salisbury's direction, the cast mingles with and teases the audience before a note is sounded or a scripted word is spoken. And the uninterrupted span of the two-hour show affords no let-up.

From there, Dickens' story, whose authoritative ending will never be known because the author died before finishing it, is treated as riotous entertainment in which dark deeds are mainly a way of highlighting the canvas' bright colors. A five-piece band at the rear of the stage, under the direction of Keith Potts, weaves a tight spell around the songs, which vary from poignant, spicy or caricaturish solos to ensemble rave-ups.

Plaintive contrast: Rosa Bud listens to Puffer's regretful "The Garden Path to Hell."
Salisbury's choreography is as snappy as the overall direction. Staging of "Two Kinsmen," the bonding duet of Drood and the shady John Jasper, was inspired and crisply executed by a dashing Cynthia Collins and an alarmingly evil-funny Eric Olson.

The high-spirited production numbers, keyed to such soloists as Paul Collier Hansen as the clerk Bazzard ("Never the Luck") and T.J. Lancaster's riveting Chairman of the troupe ("Off to the Races") were exemplary blends of individual and collective energy. The design team set a high standard of sheer fabulousness, with Stephen Hollenbeck's costumes suiting all the characters dramatically as well as for the movement required of the actors playing them.

One wonders if the complete-ballot submitters minded the mandated sing-along,  the music-hall-style
Voice lesson: Rosa Bud submits with trepidation to Jasper's direction.
"The Wages of Sin," with Judy Fitzgerald as the defiantly disreputable Princess Puffer. Perhaps they were among the more vocal participants: There's something to be said for an everyone's-a-winner philosophy with a show like this, given performances of such vivacity and winsomeness.

Bountiful good cheer and flirtatious bounce were contributed by Karaline Feller as Flo. In an audience applause vote, she was elected to dance after a romantic fashion with co-winner John Vessels as the loopy, gap-toothed stonemason and crypt expert, Durdles. No wonder — these were a pair of lovable rogues.

To add a hard-to-place note of exotic caricature, the siblings Neville and Helena Landless were tricked out in a flamboyant repertoire of gestures, poses, attitudes, and facial expressions, played with special attention to comic detail by Logan Moore and Jaddy Ciucci.

The unctuous cleric Crisparkle was loaded with superficial good will and a self-serving touch of piety in Darrin Murrell's performance. Maybe my generally jaundiced view of clergy accounted for my vote for him as the prime suspect in Drood's apparent murder.

For an unclouded picture of innocence, complete with golden locks and almost angelic attire, there could hardly have been a more apt performance than Harli Cooper's as Rosa Bud, Edwin's fiancee up until the couple agrees to break off the engagement in secret.

Dickens is a literary giant particularly known for both an unparalleled sense of fun and heartfelt  insight into life's coincidences and mysteries. So his interrupted swan song lends itself to a romp of the sort of well-coordinated exuberance that it enjoys in this production.