SOUTH SALT LAKE — What happens when you mix a zany Victorian theatre troupe, an unfinished murder mystery novel by Charles Dickens, and a heaping helping of audience interaction? You get the delightfully funny, whodunnit musical dramedy The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is loosely based on the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens. Literary scholars have various opinions regarding how Dickens intended on wrapping up the story, but playwright, lyricist, and composer Rupert Holmes chose a unique approach: to let the audience decide. The result is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style musical, with dozens of possible endings, all of which are brilliantly explored by the cast and production team at Parker Theatre.
Before the show starts, a lively troupe of Victorian actors welcomes the audience to the Music Hall Royale, and prepares the audience members will play in that evening’s performance. All of the actors were dressed in Victorian dressing gowns and underthings, costumes (designed by Paige Burton) only seen in this pre-show scene. There is a charming chaos in this pre-show time, as the actors walked up and down the aisles and in between rows to interact with audience members, and it effectively introduced the “show-within-a-show” idea that defines the play’s structure.
The cast plays a troupe of actors that are performing as the characters in their play “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” For example: Jasmine Hohl plays the Victorian actress Alice Nutting, who plays Edwin Drood in the show. These dual roles for each actor has great potential to be confusing, but under the brilliant direction of Mary Parker Williams it never was. This cast expertly used vocalization, dialects, and physicality to show the difference between when they were the Victorian actor and when they were the character in the story. This was additionally aided by clever lighting (designed by Danna Barney) and set (designed by James Parker).
Every element of this show is marvelous, including the consistently powerful and united vocals of the entire cast, the simple and effective choreography, the clever lighting design, the elegantly flowing set design, the beautiful costumes, the on-stage sound effects, and more. Every performer presented a brilliantly unique and comedic character, and collectively created an endlessly entertaining show. I cannot sing the praises of this show enough.
The story begins with John Jasper (played by Spencer Hohl), a Jekyll and Hyde-like choirmaster who is madly jealous of his nephew, Edwin Drood’s, engagement to his beautiful pupil Rosa Bud (played by Lisa Zimmerman). Spencer Hohl seized my attention immediately with his first solo “A Man Could Go Quite Mad.” His powerful voice was aided spectacularly by brilliant physical acting choices, both large and and incredibly subtle. One of my personal favorite small acting moments was when he accompanied Rosa on the piano in the song “Moonfall,” and he was mouthing along to some of the words. He was always reacting to the action in specific and interesting ways, but never in a way that distracted from the focus of the scene. Additionally, Spencer Hohl’s physical and vocal comedy was masterful, making him infinitely entertaining to watch.
Edwin Drood (played by Jasmine Hohl), despite being the titular character, did not get as much focus as some of the other characters. Despite this, Jasmine Hohl created a captivating character that was the perfect victim for the eventual mystery. Charming and boyish (despite being played by a girl) with some characters, and fiery and arrogant towards others. Jasmine Hohl sang the difficult and high music with a clear and focused mix, most impressively seen in the final moments of “The Writing on the Wall.”
Another stand out was Zimmerman’s portrayal of Rosa Bud. Zimmerman’s crystal-clear soprano voice soared whenever she opened her mouth. Not only was she an absolute pleasure to listen to, but she also presented the sweet ingénue character with a wide eyed mischief. Her subtle comedic moments brilliantly contrasted with the other actors on stage. Indeed, Zimmerman is emblematic of the a strong point in the casting: each cast member was hilarious, but all of them in unique and contrasting ways that were highlighted in different moments.
The Troupe is led by The Chairman (played by Tyler Oliphant). He engagingly guides the audience through the story, providing narration, introductions for other actors, and general structure, as well as organizing the occasional audience vote. Oliphant effortlessly guided attention and created comedy with his magnetic stage presence, and provided some wonderful musical moments with his resonant bass voice. The Chairman eventually is dragged into the show to play the part of Mayor Thomas Sapsea. This created some hilariously meta-moments as an actor played an actor, playing a part they didn’t know.
This leads me to what I believed to be the most impressive feat of the evening: an actor, in reality, playing a part they did not know. The actor who usually plays Princess Puffer broke her wrist in that afternoon’s matinee. This production does not have swings or understudies, and so the director, Mary Parker Williams, stepped in last second to play the part. Despite the fact that this casting change was announced at the beginning of the show, it took me until the Chairman got thrown into an unfamiliar part to realize that the last second switch for Princess Puffer real, and not a part of chaotic comedy that is this show. It is a credit to Williams, as well as the entire cast, that they adapted to this challenge so well and that it did not take away from the quality of the show at all. Williams was absolutely hilarious as Princess Puffer, and any small missteps were not only covered well, but added to show. It was sweet to see how in this stressful turn of events, the rest of the cast was able to rally around their director to help her through the show when needed. Though it is tragic that the original actress was injured (and I hope she has a quick recovery and can return to the show), I was immensely excited about the opportunity to see this unique example of the thrills of live theatre presented by a talented and quick-thinking director and cast.
But if all that is not enough to convince readers to see this show, I present a final experience that is unique to this show: the audience chooses the ending by voting at three different points to determine the impact of the actions of the show, which determines the plot, characters, and songs for the remainder of the performance. This makes the actors even more impressive, as they have to be prepared to perform any random combination of endings. Consequentially, every performance unique. So, not only should audiences see this brilliant show once, but they should attend again and again for more laughs, more music, more twists and turns, and more endings. At the Parker Theatre’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, every new performance is a new adventure.