For those of you who find that no holiday season is complete without a dose of Dickens, and yet can't quite face another chorus of "A Christmas Carol," the SpeakEasy Stage Company offers a novel solution: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Rupert Holmes's acclaimed 1985 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's final, unfinished novel.
No, it doesn't have Tiny Tim. But it does have sweet, innocent young Edwin Drood, whose disappearance near the end of Act I fuels the rest of the interactive action. Was Edwin murdered? If so, by whom? Dickens never told us, so Holmes devised the then-novel trick of having each night's audience vote on a solution.
This would not work at all if Holmes - best known for "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," which predates this far less irritating concoction by a few years - had stayed faithful to the dark, mostly humorless tone of the original. But it did work - so well that it won an armful of Tonys - and still does work, for those who enjoy this sort of thing, because of Holmes's other amusing device: to have us watch "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" as staged by a freewheeling troupe of music-hall performers in 1890s London.
The SpeakEasy cast, featuring many local favorites and some strong newcomers, gets into the proto-vaudevillean spirit from the start, roaming the aisles of the Roberts Studio Theatre to chat up the audience and explain the niceties of the voting system that will later come into play. By the time the wickedly funny Will McGarrahan, as the unctuous and (almost) imperturbable "chairman," or master of ceremonies, arrives onstage to start the show, we know what we're here for: some songs, some jokes, some silliness, some dancing, and, oh, by the way, a mystery. More or less.
And that, more or less, is what we get, presented with deceptive ease by director Paul Daigneault. Gail Astrid Buckley contributes some handsome and strikingly detailed Victorian costumes; set designer Jenna McFarland Lord's tongue-in-cheek, two-dimensional backdrops perfectly capture the flavor of a boozy music hall, right down to its gaudy painted proscenium and velvet curtain; and Dan Rodriguez conducts the invisible musicians smoothly through Holmes's well-crafted, if unmemorable, score.
Meanwhile, Leigh Barrett has a fine old time as Miss Alice Nutting, the actress playing Edwin in male drag; she's delightful as the sweet young boy, and even more delightful as the shrieking harridan of a diva who's been hired to appear in two acts, murdered or not. Michael Mendiola makes an appealingly comic villain as Mr. Clive Paget in the role of John Jasper, Edwin's uncle and so obvious a suspect that he can't possibly be the real culprit - or can he?
Equally sinister, perhaps, is Kerry Dowling's preening Princess Puffer - excuse me, Miss Angela Prysock, whose tear-jerking song stylings blend seamlessly into the Princess's opium-scented tale of degradation and woe. And Brendan McNab, resplendent in fez and eyeliner, cuts a deliciously decadent figure as Mr. Victor Grinstead, whose character, Neville Landless, is another chief suspect in the murder.
If there is a murder, of course. And we haven't even gotten to the other suspects - the drunken mason, the repressed vicar, the rosy ingenue, and the rest, all wheeling deftly around the stage in David Connolly's pleasingly giddy choreography. It doesn't much matter, though - this is a show that's more about itself, about the pleasures of putting on a show, than it is about whatever story eventually ends up playing itself onstage.
To be brutally honest, if I must raise a glass of eggnog to Mr. Dickens every year, I'd rather do it by curling up with "Bleak House" next to a roaring fire. But that just goes to show you what a wet blanket of a holiday sprite I am. And if your 10-year-old is as wisecracking and noisy as mine, you may find him better entertained by this rowdy band of pranksters than by all those caroling ghosts. God bless them, every one.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.