KPBS AIRDATE: February 26, 1997
In 1870, at the ripe old age of 58, Charles Dickens died in England, while working on a serialized novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. More than a century later, Rupert Holmes turned his lifelong obsession with the unfinished novel into a musical called “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” for which he wrote the book, score and lyrics. Since there were no clues as to Drood’s murderer or even if a murder had been committed, Holmes decided to let the audience provide the show’s ending by voting on how it turns out. So far so good.
But the writer’s second major decision, on much shakier ground, was to offer the story as if it were being performed by an acting company at London’s Music Hall Royale in 1873, complete with a Chairman to comment on the action and, a more interesting choice, a woman to play Drood.
As mysteries go, I far prefer another Holmes play, “Solitary Confinement.” As musicals go, well, it’s wildly disparate in tone: too ponderous at times, too silly at others. And for its boisterous, music-hall milieu, the score is awfully minor key. The best songs go to The Princess Puffer, opium peddler extraordinaire, wonderfully acted and sung by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. The other powerful performance is put in by Mary Miller, as the title character. Doren Elias is straining as the Chairman, Paul Eggington is pretty much playing the same character he did in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and Kerry Meads is so over the top as the Ceylonese Helena, with her posing and toe-pointing, it’s a distraction from the action.
There’s no real feeling of ensemble here; the acting and accents are all over the place; the voices are variable and don’t blend well. But the costumes are gorgeous and the look is perfect. The voting at the end is kinda fun, too. It’s all just too overblown; musical-hall high-jinx just aren’t my cup of tea.
My thirst for a satisfying evening of theater was even less slaked by “Bodacious and Black Swallow,” the latest production of the usually quite polished and dexterous Black Ensemble Theatre. They took a real chance on this new play by a local writer, Kit Lavell. The fictional story is loosely based on the real-life Black Swallow, Eugene Bullard, who, during World War I, became the world’s first African American military aviator. But the conceit of the play was inspired by two elderly blind men, one black, one white, whom the playwright watched, outside a single-room occupancy hotel in downtown San Diego.
That’s where the piece is set, and it is the wild tales of these two nonagenarians that take center-stage in the play. Unfortunately, there is little arc and no action. One tall-tale follows another, and they’re numbingly similar. Behind the scenes, some real estate developers are plotting to level the residence hotel in which these two old codgers live. The exposition is endless and condescending, the dialogue is flat, and the whole thing goes on one act and one hour too long. The play is not credibly cast, evenly acted or absorbingly directed. Bullard sounds like a fascinating character, but this play is more than an audience can swallow.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.