East Penn Press

Monday, July 13, 2020

Theater Review: No 'Mystery' at 'Berg; 'Drood' is simply great

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

The Muhlenberg College Department of Theater & Dance's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," through Nov. 3, Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, is one of the best musical productions to ever hit the Lehigh Valley stage.

And it is a huge hit. From the opening immersive experience of the show's actors mingling with the audience as theater-goers take their seats and settle in, to the rousing finale, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a must-see for musical-theater fans.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) bills itself as "Broadway musicals in your own back yard." With "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," director Charles Richter, MSMT co-founder, extends that maxim to this Muhlenberg College student fall term production.

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is based on the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. The surprisingly brilliant book, music and lyrics are by Rupert Holmes ("Escape: The Pina Colada Song," a No. 1 pop hit in 1979).

The play debuted in 1985 at the New York Shakespeare Festival, moved to Broadway where it ran until 1987, receiving 11 Tony Award nominations and receiving book, score, musical and leading actor Tonys. It was revived last year by The Roundabout Theatre Company.

The characters and plot are from Dickens' book. To this are added the traditions of British Musical Hall, popular in the years after Dickens' death (the reason "Drood," published serially, went unfinished), including that of The Chairman, or emcee, and Lead Boy, a female playing a male. The audience selects the show's conclusion.

Scenic Designer Tim Averill frames the large Empie stage with a handsome, wood-colored proscenium, and places cafe tables on each side of the stage where some of the ensemble sits during the show. That, combined with the actors' audience interaction, brings the theater-goer in on the show's tongue-in-cheek concept.

On stage, there's a wonderful backdrop of a church, drops depicting townhouses, with a succession of scenes: a graveyard with crypt, and an underground opium den.

Lighting Designer Susan Hamburger bathes these scenes in washes of green, blue and gray (with smoke engulfing the stage at one point) for the mock-scary scenes, and rains rainbows of color for the delightful frivolous choral and dance scenes.

Costume Designer Nicole Wee attires the females in exquisite, colorful confections of yards of gorgeous material, and the males in wonderful coats and tails.

Conductor Vince Di Mura leads a magnificent 21-piece orchestra.

Music Director Ed Bara has sustained, superb performances from a huge cast of 13 principal roles and 22 in the ensemble.

Choreographer Jeffrey Peterson gives the actors energetic, precise and bold movements that fill the big stage. This is one exciting show.

The Muhlenberg student cast is more than up to the show's challenge, beginning with the opening "There You Are."

Joe Marx, as John Jasper, has a terrific voice and engaging manner in "A Man Could Go Quite Mad."

Stefanie Goldberg, is a great comedic actor with a big voice, in male drag as Edwin Drood, and duets deliciously with Marx, in "Two Kinsmen."

Rachel L. Kaufman (for the Oct. 26 performance) as Rosa has a fine operatic range, displayed beautifully in "Moonfall" and, with Emily Phillips (Helena), Elizabeth Harris (Beatrice) and Seana Benz (Wendy) in "Moonfall Quartet."

Joe Marx and Stefanie Goldberg blend romantically in "Perfect Strangers" and "Name of Love."

Caitlin Sing (The Princess Puffer) is a wonderful belter in "The Wages of Sin."

Alan Mendez (Neville), Wesley MacBeth (The Rev. Mr. Crisparkle), Emily Phillips, Rachel L. Kaufman, Stefanie Goldberg and the ensemble join for a rousing "A British Subject."

George Primavera, hilariously spot-on and quite the ad-libber as The Chairman, and Joe Marx duet humorously in "Both Sides of the Coin."

Josh Portera (Bazzard), Alan Mendez, Rachel L. Kaufman, Emily Phillips, Stefanie Goldberg, Wesley MacBeth and Joe Marx are rousingly tremendous in "No Good Can Come From Bad."

The Company outdoes itself in "England Reigns."

Quite frankly, there aren't enough superlatives to laud this lavish, funny and entertaining show.

If you want to see one of the Lehigh Valley's most memorable musical productions, don't miss "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."