It's been more than a quarter century since Rupert Holmes' musical version of Charles Dickens' final (and unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, hit the Broadway stage. And there's a charmingly meta quality to Holmes' approach to the material: He imagines the story as a performance of an old-fashioned English music-hall troupe, led by a spirited master of ceremonies played to spry perfection by Jim Norton. The title character, the soon-to-disappear Drood, is played by the company's notorious male impersonator, Alice Nutting (Stephanie J. Block, a confident singer who lacks the insouciance of Betty Buckley, who originated the role).
Holmes' conceit (and Scott Ellis' brisk direction) calls for over-the-top mugging, and songs like ''A Man Could Go Quite Mad'' (sung by Smash's Will Chase as the prime suspect) seem specifically geared to deprive the show of any semblance of subtlety. But for material that can often seem creaky, it's perhaps not surprising that the standouts in the cast are the septuagenarian vets: In addition to Norton, there's Chita Rivera as a London madam named Princess Puffer. Though she may not have the luscious pipes of her prime, the 79-year-old theater legend can sell a song like no other. Even more impressive, she's still limber enough to join a kick line. (The workmanlike choreography is by Warren Carlyle.)
Alas, Holmes' score has not held up quite as well over the years. While there are a few memorable ditties, such as the Rivera-led ''Don't Quit While You're Ahead,'' the bulk of the tunes amount to thin pastiche of the not exactly fresh music-hall style.
Edwin Drood's chief claim to fame is Holmes' clever script, particularly his ingenious means of handling the fact that Dickens never wrote the material for the final act. So Holmes simply stops the show, mid-song, and throws crucial questions including the identity of whodunit to the audience to decide by democratic vote. As a result, the cast must prepare multiple versions of the ending, with different lyrics and lines dusted off depending on the outcome of the polling. And there's visible delight on stage when theatergoers make less conventional, Herman Cain-like choices. But as Rivera and her top-vote-getting love interest struggled to stay in character through their melodic seduction clearly this was a new pairing for the cast it struck me that the obvious joy of the performers on stage was not always translating across the proscenium. Suspiciously, I have to wonder if this is one entertainment that is just more fun to perform than to watch. B