"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" never was solved because its author, Charles Dickens, died before he could finish the novel.
Imaginative playwright-composer Rupert Holmes, a fellow Briton, has given it an ending — or, more accurately, a half-dozen endings — while turning the book into a musical comedy. This creation is winding up a two-weekend engagement at Vanguard University as an ambitious, overlong but consistently entertaining production.
"Drood" has brought out the best in its production team — director Vanda Eggington, choreographer Stephany Parker and costumer Lia M. Hansen — all of whom turn in superior achievements, which more than compensate for the somewhat creaky storyline of a music hall troupe playing out Dickens' drama.
Ensemble work in the show's frequent production numbers has been especially impressive, with Parker's dance numbers — particularly the "Off to the Races" first-act closer — elevating the proceedings considerably. Longtime costume designer Hansen has outdone herself on this show with her rich lineup of Victorian creations.
Director Eggington has encouraged her student cast to venture over the top with their characters, going melodramatic when necessary. Several performers shine most effectively in this regard, with Lucas Moore topping the list as the show's master of ceremonies who takes on two other roles — all with appropriate vigor and groan-inducing humor.
The show's apparent villain, a fiery music teacher who frequents opium dens, is lustily enacted by Dustin Laemmien in an engaging bit of menace. The role of his nephew, Drood, traditionally played by a female in male drag who disappears mysteriously, is nicely accomplished by Paige Brinskele. That she/he is a head shorter than fiancee Mary Lee Tandy-McGlasson adds further comedic zest.
Tandy-McGlasson also brings a glorious voice to the proceedings, especially in her early solo "Moonfall." Newly arrived twins Zach Simons and Candace Miser-Blanton thrust an air of subterfuge into the plot, the former with a white-hot temper and the latter with seductive Mata Hari-type moves.
Other impressive performances are delivered by Nicholas Lazaris as the underappreciated flunky Bazzard, Joey Sims as the goofy cemetery worker Durdles, Michael McCalip as the kindly cleric Crisparkle and especially Katelyn Spurgin as the brassy opium den queen Princess Puffer.
So whodunit? And is Drood really dead? That's up to you, the future audience, to decide. Performers canvass the crowd near the end of the show each night to come up with one of six potential endings, then play it out.
"Drood" may be overextended in its length and undernourished in its plotting, but Vanguard's satirical interpretation and musical comedy stylings, particularly Parker's imaginative choreography, make it an evening well spent.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
Where: Vanguard University Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $17 and $14
Call: (714) 668-6145