Guggenheim Entertainment and 3Below’s musical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is an unexpectedly delightful and high-quality production, tucked into a small theater in the heart of downtown San José.
You likely haven’t heard much about Charles Dickens’ unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There aren’t very many film or TV adaptations of the story compared to the author’s more famous works such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and, certainly, A Christmas Carol. It also doesn’t help that Dickens died just as the plot of Edwin Drood was really getting interesting.
As a result, there’s been a lot of speculation over the years about how Dickens would have finished the story. The 1985 musical of the same title takes the unfinished story and runs away with it. The show presents itself as a bawdy musical review of the late-1800s, presenting the story of Edwin Drood, his beautiful bride-to-be, his shady uncle and a host of other Dickensian stereotypes you may recognize.
Most interestingly, however, the show ends differently every night. Halfway through act two, the audience gets to weigh in on the outcome of the murder mystery, getting the opportunity to vote not only on the murderer, but also the identity of a mysterious detective and the lovers at the end of the show.
The cast portrays each role with enthusiasm and skill. Each actor gives a wonderful performance, not only as their Dickensian character, but also as their 1890s actor role, helping to explain the sometimes-convoluted plot to the audience. I can honestly say I’ve never seen such a talented cast performing to such an empty house.
Actress Krista Wigle particularly stands out as opium purveyor, Princess Puffer. Although her first song, “The Wages of Sin,” feels a little silly, her act two solo song, “The Garden Path to Hell,” is a standout moment in the show. Not only is it one of the best songs in the show, Wigle’s performance of it is superb. She is emotive and restrained in her performance, bringing a depth to the story that it sorely needs. Still, she also never loses sight of her character’s comedic side and importance to the script.
Jeremy Kreamer as Bazzard is another surprising standout amongst the cast. Kreamer easily captures the audience’s hearts and creates a memorable character despite just a few lines and only one song of his own.
Although none of the actors need the microphones they have in such a small theater, adjusting the levels on the sound equipment is a small problem to have.
Unfortunately, the actors’ great acting and spot-on harmonies cannot fully distract from some of the script’s shortcomings. Although the The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score in 1986, it simply isn’t as memorable as other winners from that decade such as Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Les Misérables. You’re not going to walk out of the theater humming a certain tune or dying to hear the music again.
The show also runs into the problem that it’s hard to compact one of Dickens’ plots into a convenient two-and-a-half hour package. A Christmas Carol works so well and has been adapted so many times partially because it’s a very short book. Some of the most successful adaptations of Dickens’ books have been multi-part mini series due to the fact that his plots are usually very complex and difficult to simplify.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, suffers from this problem. The plot feels both confusing and over-simplified in this show. Between the musical numbers, it is easy to miss the complexities of the story and yet the most important elements of the plot are repeated too many times. But these issues are ultimately problems with the script and not this production.
The show is performed in the former movie theater, Camera 3, which has been renovated and redesigned into a surprisingly nice multi-purpose space and renamed 3Below. While one of the three theaters has long been used to house improvisational comedy group, ComedySportz, another theater is now set up for live performances. The whole space was remodeled in 2017 and now features much nicer seats, bathrooms and performance spaces.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is being performed now through November 11, 2018 at 3Below Theaters & Lounge, 288 South Second Street in Downtown San José. Tickets range from $36 to $54.
Photos courtesy of Mark & Tracy Photography