The audience will decide "whodunit" at "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
The Session Room on Jackson Road was in a festive mood May 9.
The front of the restaurant/beer hall was taken over by what appeared to customers like a troupe of English music hall performers.
In truth, they were actors from the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre trying out their jokes, songs, patter, and various English accents in preparation for their upcoming presentation of Rupert Holmes’ musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, June 1-4, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
The show's director, Ron Baumanis, said the setting was perfect for getting his cast in the mood.
“Here we have this show with great musical numbers that can be lifted right out and done as an evening of entertainment,” he said. “Sessions is a beer hall and essentially music halls started out as beer halls then moved into theaters. But instead of seats, people sat at tables with their tankards of beer and did business or whatever they wanted to do.”
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a music-hall piece based on a famously unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Holmes, the singer and songwriter famous for the hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show, originally commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival and first performed in August 1985 in Central Park. It later moved to Broadway and won five Tony Awards.
“It’s actually one of my five favorite musicals of all time,” said Baumanis. “I saw this when it was done by the New York Shakespeare Festival free in Central Park with this amazing Broadway cast,” he said. “I love this show, it’s like a modern look at what an English music hall would have been like.”
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a play within a play with a twist.
“It’s a troupe of an English musical theater, The Royale in London, putting on a musical production of Mr. Edwin Drood on the line of pantomimes or pantos and that type of thing,” Baumanis said. “People act out stories, add songs and do their schtick to it. It’s a precursor of American vaudeville really.”
Baumanis has directed scores of plays, including 52 musicals, and he says this is “the hardest thing I’ve directed.”
“You have to approach it as a story,” he said. “What is the main story we are trying to tell and how are we trying to tell it and how do you cast people who can tell the story and be their own characters, so the challenge here is not to confuse the audience throughout the evening. They have to know when they arrive for the evening that they are arriving at the Theatre Royale, so right off the top they are going to get special programs -- it will be a two-sided program. Fold it one way, it’s the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre; flip it the other way, it’s the Theatre Royale London for this show.”
The story the fictional music-hall troupe is telling is Charles Dickens' last novel before he died. It’s a murder mystery that was never completed and that never answered the critical question, “Whodunit?” Holmes follows the basic Dickens story up to the point he completed it but in the context of a touring music hall show with stand up singers, comedians, and dancers weaving their specialties in and out of Dickens’ narrative.
The Civic Theatre cast will take on the personas of rustic music hall performers, welcoming the audience to a night of entertainment. They’ll be performing as both the entertainers and the characters in the play.
“What makes it more interesting to an intelligent audience, but more difficult to follow, it that there is this troupe of English actors doing this story of Edwin Drood, but they are also doing the same old schtick they do in every show they’ve ever done,” Baumanis said. “There’s suddenly a musical number and it kind of fits but mostly it’s just their schtick.”
And the twist? Since Dickens didn’t live long enough to answer the big question, Holmes leaves it up to the audience.
“In the second half of the show, the audience votes on who is the detective, who murdered Edwin Drood, and who the lovers are at the end and each ending is slightly different," Baumanis said. “To keep it entertaining and move it along each of the suspects, and there are eight of them, have to know even different endings to the show. We are rehearsing each suspect with several different people and then switching to another suspect. They’re really good; we have a top-notch cast. I’m very fortunate.”
The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre adds an extra level of atmosphere to the music hall theme. The beer hall entertainment offered at The Session Room will move, appropriately, to the red velvet splendor of the Mendelssohn.
“I hope it drives people to read Dickens’ novella because it’s fantastic stuff. I was very interested in what he thought about these characters,” said Baumanis. “Two, I want them to leave saying it was really professional and they usually do. I want them to say that was a slick show and I want to come back to another show. Three, I hope they enjoy it, not your typical show after work but they are part of it.”
Cast members are Jared Hoffert, Roy Sexton, Vanessa Bannister, Kimberly Elliott, Alisa Mutchler Bauer, Becca Nowak, Brandon Cave, Brodie H. Brockie, Michael Cicirelli, Jimmy Dee Arnold, Peter Dannug, Sarah Sweeter, Heather Wing, Julia Fertel, Ashleigh Glass, Chris Joseph, Karl Nilsen, and Kelly Wade.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, June 1; 8 pm Friday and Saturday, June 2-3; and 2 pm Sunday, June 4 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, call (734)971-2228 or go online to a2ct.org/tickets.