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Monday, October 27, 2014

George Mason U. presents a zany 'Edwin Drood'

Dylan Toms is the wicked John Jasper in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

The acting in George Mason University's musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood,  is so spectacular, you'll come away mystified that the actors are only college kids. 

Such a talented bunch, and boy, do they have a good time.  Let's party, hearty.   And they did and we watched, and were caught up in the soiree, the gaiety, and the fun.

The voices far exceed what playgoers might expect, and you may search the program to find out that Dylan Toms (John Jasper in Drood) has not come from the New York stage but is a mere freshman from Bedford, Virginia. Under the direction of Ken Elston, Toms is absolutely stellar with exaggerated mannerisms, style, and delivery.
Rachel Harrington is Princess Puffer in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

If you are a little mystified  at the end, you won't be the only one. From the arrival in the lobby where actors in their fancies enthusiastically greet theatregoers, to the show's end, you'll be whetted by action, smiles, social media and more, brought to you by Mason's School of Theater and School of Music.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens's last novel, one he left unfinished when he died in 1870, but Rupert Holmes's adaptation into a musical comedy (which won five Tonys in 1986) leaves it to the audience to complete. 

The program promises every performance has a different ending because no two audiences are alike, but our ending seemed confusing, and we were left wondering:  What happened? And when did it happen?  Is he dead or alive?  It may be 1892 in Cloisterham  where the Music Hall Royale presents the play within a play, but it's also 2014 at George Mason University with 33,000 mostly millennial students who use social media

The large cast leaves an audience member with many choices to make (via smartphone or by hand vote) for perpetrator (and you can vote more than once since the tally is unofficial.  Vote early and vote often).  The dancers  (Ruthie Rado, Stephanie Risch, Savanna Stanton-Ameisen, Puyang Tian) even flash the audience handy cue cards from the stage, in case anyone is confused.

Rosa Bud (Emma Gwin), is the fiancee of Edwin Drood (Alexandra Bunger-Pool), who is the nephew of Rosa's music teacher, the evil John Jasper.

Emma Gwin is Rosa Bud in George Mason University's The Mystery of Edwin Drood/Photo by Autum Casey

The passionless couple agrees to call the whole thing off, however, Teacher Jasper is madly in love with Rosa, also sought by Neville Landless (Lawrence Hailes), who arrives with his sister, Helena (Arami McCloskey) from Ceylon(?).

Jasper visits an opium den (with excellent red, mood lighting by Autum Casey) "managed" by the delightful Rachel Harrington, as Princess Puffer whose voice may carry listeners to the Metropolitan Opera.  (The audience later chooses her and the Reverend Crisparkle (Daniel DeVera) as the the couple Most Likely to Succeed in Love.)

The princess is rather opera-like in carriage and in a dance number with several couples participating, picked up the effervescent and impish mayor, the moderator (acted by Kyle Imperatore) and swung him around the stage  while the male dancers did the same with the female actors. 

From his perch on a landing, the mayor has more slapstick lines than anyone and carries the whole night with his explanations, directions, and pithy remarks:   "Her parents are in the iron and steel business. Her mother irons, and her father steals."  He's a leprechaun in red plaid.

Drood disappears, and we are left guessing. The motives of many are prime. Amidst this complexity are dancing and hullabaloo to send your mind soaring.

To adequately describe in words the beauty and strength of the voices of Gwin and Harrington would do an injustice to the singers. You must hear them to believe them.

Costumes (by Laurel Dunayer) are handsome, colorful, and intricate, especially appealing to the Victorian lovers in the crowd.

The set (by Clayton Austin) suffices with a large screen of location stills (a train station, a parlor, a dinner party, etc.) sandwiched between two identical "brick walls" with steps, a door, and landing

Adding significantly to enjoyment is a 35-piece professional student orchestra in the pit, under the direction of Dennis Layendecker. Occasionally, the sounds of music dwarf the script, but not enough to cause unpleasantness.

Based on the title and the author, you might think The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a drama, but not this one.  It's a comedy tonight.

Other key cast members are Justin Sumblin, Chris Hrozencik; Emily Gruver, and Gabriel Komisar.

Kevin Dunayer is sound director, Ethan Osborne, technical director; Nicole Pradas, choreographer; Colby T. Snyder, properties; Jessica Holloway, dramaturg; David Elias, production stage manager; Libby Stevens and Bruce Scott, graphic design.

The production is part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, established after the 2002 kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.   His family and friends formed the Daniel Pearl Foundation to "promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications."

What:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood

When:  8 p.m., October 31, 2014, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., November 1, 2014

Where:  Hylton Performing Arts Center, George Mason University, Prince William Campus, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA 20110

Parking:  Free in the lot adjacent to the Hylton Center

Tickets: Adults, $25; Students, faculty, staff, seniors, and groups, $15

Duration:  About 2.5 hours with one 15-minute intermission

For more information:  703-993-7550

For more theatre in Washington, check out the DC Metro Theater Art's website here.

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