‘Mystery of Edwin Drood’ yields cast of standout performances

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By Jennifer Garcia

Halloween is in a few weeks, so it’s the perfect time to get into the holiday spirit — and what better way to do so, than with a murder mystery.
Los Alamos Light Opera treated Los Alamos audiences to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Duane Smith Auditorium over the weekend. Touted as, “a musical murder mystery in two acts,” the show, directed by Jess Cullinan and produced by Gwen Wiens, allows the audience to choose how the Charles Dickens story ends. Under the musical direction of Gretchen Amstutz, Brian Huysman and Jess Cullinan, with choreography by Patrick MacDonald, the production features a cast of characters that will not soon be forgotten.
There are some familiar faces on stage (Warren Houghteling as John Jasper; Patrick MacDonald as Bazzard; John Cullinan as Mr. William Cartwright, Chairman; and Jim Sicilian as Mr. James Throttle, the stage manager and barkeep, to name a few), as well as some not-so-familiar faces (Rita O’Connell as Edwin Drood; Christina Martos as Rosa Bud; and Kirste Plunket as Wendy, for starters).
If there are some novices in the group, it’s not evident. They all seem to be seasoned actors. Not a single one was out of place. Each played their parts well and contributed to making “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” something worth watching.
There’s really no better way to describe this show than to say it’s much like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” not because it features a transvestite — however, the actor that plays Edwin Drood does bend the gender rules — but because there is audience interaction with the cast. Prior to the start of the production, many of the actors take to the seats and begin talking to random people.
The Princess Puffer (Anna Dillane) was quite animated as she made her rounds, trying to convince people that Jasper is a villain. Constable Horace (Howard Barnum), Beatrice/Flo (Irene Zaugg), Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Carlos Archuleta), Durdles (Patrick Webb) and the Deputy (Nora Cullinan) could be seen milling around and mingling before the curtain rose.
Also, there’s no throwing of peanuts or other assorted things, but there is a chance for the audience to choose whom they think killed Edwin Drood. In fact, some of the actors come off stage and tally the audience’s votes. There is however, some colorful language and humor.
Three of the standout performances are that of Houghteling, Dillane and Martos. Houghteling plays a wonderful villain, full of sneakiness, contempt and the ability to hide his true intentions. He seems like a nice guy, albeit a rather slithery-looking one, but those who know him well know better than to buy into that façade.
Dillane, on the other hand, makes her role as a proprietor of an opium bar convincing. She’s led a rough life, which has led to her contribution to the drug world, but she still holds a place in her heart for Rosa Bud, whom she took care of when she worked as a nanny.
One of the most memorable parts of Martos’ performance is her singing. She has a very good voice and is never off-key. Her part as Rosa Bud makes her out to be a sweet, innocent girl about to be married to Edwin Drood.
However, not everything is a rose garden for Bud. She has to constantly thwart Jasper’s advances, even though he’s Drood’s uncle. Despite the fact that she is betrothed to Drood, she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with the arrangement.
O’Connell as Drood is a bit surprising and confusing at first. One isn’t sure whether she’s simply playing the part of Drood, or whether the storyline is meant to feature a female playing the part of a male. In any case, it’s all cleared up quickly and the show goes on. Her role as a male is surprisingly good and one almost forgets a female is playing the role.
Helena Landless (Alexis Perry) is another entertaining character. She appears to be from India and has that sort of accent and attire. She’s also a bit of a firecracker, unwilling to take any flak from anyone and not afraid to speak her mind. With a wave of her hand and motion of her head, she’s quick to dismiss anyone she doesn’t agree with. She definitely has attitude.
One of the most interesting scenes has to be in the opium den. Hookahs adorn the premises, with some of The Princess Puffer’s patrons passed out in front of them. Jasper is also unconscious, but soon begins dreaming. It’s then that dancers clothed in gray, come scuttling out from beneath where Jasper is laying and begin a trance-inducing performance.
The orchestra provides lively music for the show, but at times was a bit too loud, drowning out the actors. Some parts of the set design were good, while other parts were excellent. The cemetery scene, for example, was very well done. However, the set at the beginning of the show features a wall on which a portrait hangs, but one can see that the wallpaper has a bit of slack at the top.
The costumes for this show are excellent and indicative of the time period.
Almost all the actors speak and sing in a British accent, which can be dicey for some, but not this cast. They all keep in character throughout the show and never lose their accents.
The only other thing that is a bit unappealing about the show is its length. It runs about three hours.
A production of that length isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s action-packed and keeps the audience’s attention however, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” doesn’t haven enough to keep one on the edge of their seat throughout the show, so it begins to drag along.
Proof of this is the fact that the audience was visibly smaller after intermission, which was taken after a nearly two-hour performance.
There’s still a chance to see the production at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors and are available at the door or online at losalamoslightopera.org.