A story and characters created by Charles Dickens, 25 songs by a polished pop songwriter, a lecherous opium-smoking villain, a play-within-a-play and a do-it-yourself ending that has the audience deciding what direction the show's resolution -- it all makes "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" sound like a whole lot of fun.
And, for the most part, that's what the current production by the Manatee Players is.
Dickens died before he had a chance to finish "Drood," and there have been several attempts to fill in the solution in film and television adaptations.
For his mid-'80s musical, Rupert Holmes came up with another way to finish the story: He had the audience vote on several key plot points at the play's end. The cast has to be ready to perform all the possible endings.
The performers in the Manatee Players production handle that challenge admirably. And, in fact, the cast is terrific from start to finish.
Lively choreography by Scott Keys (who also directed), a beautiful and richly textured set by Rick Kerby and a rich assortment of gorgeous period costumes by David Covach give the show a perfect look and feel. And a lot of Holmes' melodies are so catchy that they keep running through your head the next day and they're so clever that you don't think of them as ear-worms.
But still, "Drood" isn't quite as much fun as it should be.
The main problem is that the having the audience vote on several plot resolutions is nothing but a gimmick, and not a very good one. It stops the show in its tracks and destroys its energy.
It might work better if the audience were more emotionally invested in the characters and the story. But it's played as a campy melodrama; Holmes has a Victorian music hall company performing the Dickens story, with the audience being instructed to boo and hiss when the villain appears. It's kind of hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting on which of the cartoonish characters find love and which find prison.
Inconsistent sound quality in the Manatee Players production adds to the problem. The show is both song-heavy and talky, and some of the dialogue and much of the lyrics are difficult to understand. Mix in the play-within-a-play format, with every actor playing two roles and jumping back and forth between them, and the story's not easy to follow.
But the cast is one of the best of any recent Manatee Players show, and together with the design work they make "Drood" well worth seeing. There entire cast sings, acts and dances wonderfully, and even the actors in the small roles have ample stage presence. Most importantly, they all seem to be having a phenomenal amount of fun.
Among the standouts are Christoff Marse as the mustache-twirling villain John Jasper, Walter D. Price as the de facto narrator and Danae DeShazer as Drood.
Details: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," through Jan. 26 at Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $27 and $37. Call 941-748-5875 or go to www.manateeplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.