VSMT’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ premieres tomorrow

Maggie Nepomuceno

Tomorrow Villanova Student Musical Theater opens its latest production, a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ final novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

The show, directed by Monica Stephenson, is a play-within-a-play in which a British theater group is putting on a production of “Drood.” The play itself tells the story of choirmaster John Jasper (Dan McFadden), who falls in love with Rosa Bud (Julie Crane), the fiancee of his nephew Edwin Drood (Tricia Elms). Also enchanted by Rosa is Neville Landless (Kevin Gallagher), a Middle Eastern man who quickly makes an enemy of Drood. When Drood is murdered, Jasper and Landless become only two of the numerous possible suspects.

More mystery lies behind this story than its title suggests. When Dickens died in 1870, he left his novel unfinished, leaving his readers with an unsolved murder mystery. Others have made attempts to write an ending to the novel with varying results. The fact remains that we will never know how Dickens wanted “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to end, something that playwright and songwriter Rupert Holmes understood when he created the musical production of the same name.

Rather than decipher an ending of his own, Holmes employed a process in which the audience determines the outcome.

When the play reaches the point where Dickens left off, the audience is given the task of choosing who plays the detective, who plays the murderer and which two characters will become romantically linked. The actors must then immediately commence with whatever ending the audience has selected.

In VSMT’s production, the detective and two lovers are determined by audience applause. The murderer, on the other hand, is voted through a system in which the audience is divided into “districts.” Each district gets a vote, and then the character that receives the most district votes becomes the convicted murderer.

Probably the most interesting thing about this production is the labyrinth of possible outcomes, as Stage Manager/Assistant Director Dave McFadden points out.

“The cool part about it is that there’s obvious choices that seem like they would make more sense,” McFadden says. “And some where you don’t really feel like you see that person doing it. At the same time, why else are [these characters] in the show? Why did Charles Dickens put them in this novel if he didn’t have something intended for them?”

With its unpredictable endings, the execution of the play depends heavily on a strong cast capable of leading the audience through this “choose-your-own-adventure”-like production. The task of putting on such an elaborate show seems daunting at first, but it’s a challenge the VSMT cast is ready to take on.

“It’s like 15 different endings per character,” cast member Gallagher says. “So, we have to remember each possibility. While it’s challenging to remember each situation, it keeps it more interesting that way, too.”

Of course, it’s not all about the cast. The interaction with the audience is vital to the show. The actors physically engage themselves with the audience, maneuvering through the aisles and talking to them up close and personal.

“This show is really in-your-face with the audience,” Edwin Drood portrayer Elms says. “A bunch of the musical numbers are in the audience, and they’re going to have people talking to them between scenes.”

This interactive, whodunit musical is guaranteed to provide a fun time for any audience member. It’s not the kind of show where you’ll feel enlightened when you come out of it.

It’s more about having an entertaining night at the theater as an active participant in the show’s plot.

While “Drood” is filled with themes of obsession, opium nightmares and murder, it is also a vaudeville-esque show chockfull of laugh-out-loud humor. Watch the scenes with Princess Puffer and you’ll know what I mean.

“It’s a comedy,” said Dan McFadden, who plays the role of John Jasper. “There’s tons of farce. There’s tons of sarcasm. It’s not a drama. [The audience] will laugh a lot, and it’s something they never have or will experience in the theater.”

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” runs through Feb. 24 at St. Mary’s Auditorium in the lower level of St. Mary’s Hall. Tickets are $6 for students and $8 for general admission.