By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When all elements come together, a night at the theater can be as refreshing as a three-day weekend. In WaterTower Theatre's production of the Rupert Holmes musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the cast is first-rate and the technical aspects are nearly flawless. Holmes' book and music offer a cleverly conceived play-within-a-play and more than 20 haunting and melodic songs. There's lively dancing, corny jokes and the tricky gimmick of allowing the audience to choose how to solve the "mystery" at the end. Only problem is, there's just about 45 minutes too much of a good thing. Pushing three hours, Drood at times feels like it's going to last the weekend long.
But too much of a good show isn't such a bad deal. There's plenty to like about Drood. Based on an unfinished murder mystery by Charles Dickens, who dropped dead before writing down who the culprit was, Drood takes the form of an English music hall production. The troupe of actors playing actors playing Dickens' characters melodramatically present the story of the disappearance of Edwin Drood in song and dance. After Drood vanishes--at the place where Dickens stopped writing--audience votes decide who will take on the key roles of the investigating detective, the murderer and the pair of happy young lovers. Depending on how the voting winds up, the finale could veer off in hundreds of different directions. That kind of leeway is a lot to ask of a large cast, but the WaterTower bunch, ably directed by Terry Martin, is up to it.
In the leading role of the narrator, the "Chairman" of the troupe, is R Bruce Elliott. Part Scrooge, part Puck, Elliott, thick gray hair parted in the middle and hanging to his shoulders, sets the mood for Droodby addressing the audience directly. "Let's all be as vulgar and uncivilized as legally possible," he says with a friendly growl. Elliott is an actor at a point in middle age where he is completely comfortable in his own skin and in his chosen profession. What a pleasure to watch this pro having such a good time and what fun to see him doing light comedy again. It's impossible not to like him.
In the title role is a WaterTower newcomer, Dara Whitehead. Young Edwin always is played by a woman, continuing an English music hall tradition of cross-gender impersonation, or so the Chairman tells us (Betty Buckley played Edwin on Broadway in the mid-'80s). Whitehead has a gorgeous, enormous voice and an androgynous physical silhouette that could carry her into big-voiced boy roles such as Victor/Victoria or Peter Pan. She's a pip.
As Edwin's love interest, the ingenue Rosa Bud, Arianna Movassagh wears a costume of pink confection that suits her sweet, bell-like soprano and kittenish face. Only Movassagh's wicked comic timing keeps the role from turning sickeningly sticky.
The cast doesn't lack for singing talent. Greg Allen lends his powerful baritone to the villainous role of John Jasper, the laudanum-chugging choirmaster who has the hots for Rosa's bud. M. Denise Lee, who might hold the title of Dallas' reigning musical diva, throws her thrilling voice into the torchy role of the prostitute, Princess Puffer, who runs an opium den frequented by the naughty choirmaster.
Michael Serrecchia, who overacts, oversings and over-everythings every musical role he ever gets (or at least the last two he had at Theatre Three), finally makes his hamminess work as the Reverend Chrisparkle. When he goes swanning off the stage with a flounce and a flourish, the audience falls out laughing.
For additional comic relief, there is David Stroh as the scrofulous gravedigger Durdles (and isn't that a rich old Dickensian name?). Teeth blacked out, one eye squinting, Stroh scuttles around the stage like a horny hermit crab. He's hilarious. Ditto Randy Pearlman as a bit player named Bazzard. He makes the most of an Act 1 showstopper, "Never the Luck," a tribute to small roles and unknown actors. Shades of Chicago's "Mr. Cellophane."
Even tarted up with the music hall silliness, the story that emerges from The Mystery of Edwin Drood offers a fascinating look at duality, the thin line separating good and evil in the human soul. This is a fine musical, more tuneful than most Webber-Rice shows and infinitely better lyrically than the screechfest known as Les Miz. It's just that there are about five or six too many numbers in Drood, including a ditty called "Off to the Races" that serves no purpose other than to delay the intermission after a first act that's more than 90 minutes long. At that point, the song could serve as the audience theme for the mad dash to the lavs.
Written by TV sitcom staffer Becky Mode, directed by Daniel Goldstein, Fully Committed presents one actor, Ethan Sandler, playing more than 30 characters. His main role is Sam Pelichowski, an aspiring thesp working a crummy day job as reservations clerk for a posh Manhattan restaurant. Stuck in a cluttered basement below the dining room, Sam juggles the constantly ringing phones and nonstop interruptions via the intercom from the kitchen and bar upstairs and the buzzing red hotline directly connected to the volatile chef.
With the face of a young Shelley Berman (the '60s stand-up comic) and enough goofy voices to guarantee a future at Hanna-Barbera, Sandler morphs in and out of characters in a blink. One second he's Sam, trying to break bad news to his slow-talking dad calling from the Midwest, then he's the dad, then he's the ticked-off chef, the harried maître d', a pushy businessman trying to score a table, a whiny matron complaining that her AARP card doesn't get her a discount for dinner. And so on and so on. Like a ventriloquism act without puppets.
Sandler, who's performed this show in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., is a likable chap who works up a healthy sweat as he pops in and out of the various personae. But is his an unforgettable performance? No. More like second-rate Robin Williams shtick.
With no plot, only one actor and characters so stereotyped that the Japanese voice actually says he wants to "leserve" a table for "runch," Fully Committed gets tiresome quickly. Mode drops famous names onto the menu--Naomi Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Diane Sawyer--but then blows all chances to get laughs from the references. One obvious joke is telegraphed by the set. Signs on all three walls warn Sam "No reservations from Ned Finlay." Whoever Ned Finlay is doesn't matter. We do know that at some point Ned Finlay will call and somehow scam a table out of Sam. And he does. And the joke falls flatter than a cement soufflé.
The Dallas Theater Center this season is killing itself with huge productions of trendy trivia like Big Love, Be Aggressive and Fully Committed. Audiences expect more from DTC, a theater with a 40-year history of premiering great new plays performed by top-tier actors. Now it's like a fine restaurant where the chef has lost the recipe for beef Wellington and instead puts a tiny, overpriced dollop of hash on bone china and calls it an entrée. At these prices, there needs to be better grub on the plate.