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The Mystery of Edwin Drood glimpses an earlier moment in the theater

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I count The Mystery of Edwin Drood among my guiltier theatrical pleasures. Rupert Holmes' musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' last, unfinished novel will hardly be mistaken for Shakespeare, Shaw or Sondheim. Still, it's a witty, winning ticket to an earlier moment in the theater: a melodrama as it might have been staged in a scruffy London music hall at the turn of the last century.

No, we don't find Strindberg's realism or Ibsen's reserve in the arched eyebrows (and arch asides) included in this period's exaggerated economy of expression. But there's pleasure when a two-faced villain clearly shows us both, within seconds, on stage.

This punchy, pun-filled production ushers us into that world with few bumps, although music director Julie Bradley's brisk tempi on opening night made the lyrics a blur in several numbers beside "Both Sides of the Coin" in which it's expected.

Under Jason Dula's direction, Delphon Curtis Jr. conveys the elegant menace of vintage Vincent Price as the hissable John Jasper—even if timing short-changed his Jekyll-Hyde physical changes in the first show of the run.

But the melodrama remained less than fully (over)inflated in several roles the night we saw it. Holmes' blood-and-thunder score should provide the clue: In this world, if you haven't taken a character too far, you haven't gone far enough.

In one example, Melissa Compton ingratiated in "The Wages of Sin," while subtext work remained in her later solo, "The Garden Path to Hell." Even Wade Newhouse's engaging Chairman—our host at the Music Hall Royale, where the show-within-a-show is staged—needed broader bandwidth. Some of these difficulties will likely be adjusted before the second week of shows.

Though Drood takes on the class divisions between England and its 19th-century empire in "A British Subject," it flirts with exoticizing the alien in its depictions of Helena and Neville, twin orphans from Ceylon: a trait that reflects a number of popular entertainments of the time.

Faithful to its historical period in Laura Parker's sumptuous costumes as well, the mystery where the audience supplies the ending remains a laugh-filled, if unblinking, look at what mass entertainment used to be.

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