Springfield Contemporary Theatre's 25th Season Opens With "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood"

Jun 14, 2019

Springfield Contemporary Theatre opens its 25th season with the musical comedy based on very dark source material, Charles Dickens's final, incomplete novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Springfield Contemporary Theatre's 25th season opens with the winner of the 1986 Tony Award for Best Musical, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza. Performances are June 14-30.  We talked on “Arts News” with the show’s director Rick Dines and actor Heath Hillhouse.

Rupert Holmes created this show in 1986, based on the famously unfinished last novel by Charles Dickens about a young Englishman whose sudden disappearance throws the local townspeople into a panic, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. It won the Tony that year for Best Musical, and has only been presented in one other production in Springfield that we know about: Little Theatre produced “Drood” in 1989, soon after it had become available to regional theaters.

The director of SCT’s new production, Rick Dines, thinks it’s a shame it hasn’t been performed more often locally. “It’s a fantastic show, a real crowd-pleaser. It has a gorgeous score. It’s funny—funny as can be.”

But how is it to produce and put on the stage? “It’s a challenge,” says Dines. “A unique challenge. It’s complicated to cast, it’s complicated to deal with technically.” But the most challenging aspect of “Drood” is that Dickens left the novel incomplete. “The novel was just over half way, maybe two-thirds of the way completed. And because of the era in which he wrote it, it was being released serially in the newspapers.” So whatever Dickens managed to write was already out there. “There’s been so much conjecture as to how Dickens would have finished the book.” Since Dickens died before finishing the novel and revealing the solutions to the plot’s several mysteries, Rupert Holmes created what’s been called the first Broadway musical with multiple endings. Dines continues, “(Holmes) set out to come to those questions—how would this, this, this and this end, and create all the possible options that could exist, write them, present all those questions to the audience, and ask the audience to vote nightly, and then the cast performs the ending of the show based on the audience’s choices.” And it’s all scripted, no improv. It’s a struggle to have all the alternate endings rehearsed and ready to go each night, depending on the audience’s whims.

In addition, SCT will use the most recent revised version of Holmes’s script. “The original script had about 15 pages of notes to the director and the cast. We’re actually the first company since the Broadway revival in 2012 to get to produce the revival version of the show. And there’s another 10 to 12 pages of director’s notes attached to the new version, in addition to the original!” 30-plus years of production experience has led to more and more suggestions about how to deal with the audience’s choices for the ending each night.

Heath Hillhouse will play two roles in the show: Chairman Cartwright, who is a kind of narrator—the host at the Music Hall Royale where a stage version of “Edwin Drood” is being presented, and Mayor Sapsea.  He says he’s playing one role by choice and “the other by necessity. Within the story of the show itself, one of the characters has had a little too much ‘fun’ at the bar down the block, and someone has to step in. And that ends up being the Chairman. He has to step into this other role, which was very fun finding the different physicalities and inflections to distinguish those roles.” Adds Rick Dines, “What I think Rupert Holmes has done so brilliantly in this adaptation is, rather than present a very straightforward telling of Dickens’s novel, he has created the environment of an English music hall of the 1890s. And it’s the company of the music hall that’s putting on this Dickens novel.” A play within a play, in other words. “You get a sense that this music hall has probably over the years, besides their variety acts, has staged several of Dickens’s novels, and it’s been their bread and butter. This is the one (novel) they haven’t gotten to for obvious reasons, and they’ve decided, ‘how are we gonna do it?’” “We found a brilliant way,” says Heath Hillhouse. “We don’t decide—we make the audience decide!”  Continues Dines, “So that is the extra challenge for the cast, on top of the all the endings and everything else. Everyone in the cast is playing not only their Dickens character, but the actor portraying the Dickens character. And for some of them that’s TWO different British dialects!”

Hillhouse feels “Drood” is “a murder mystery at its heart. The fun of the show, and of the environment we create in the Music Hall Royale, can not necessarily overshadow that, but make you forget that ‘there is the issue of murder at hand,’ to steal a line from the show itself.

In fact, Rupert Holmes, in his notes to the director and cast, warned against reading the original Dickens novel first, because its tone, says Rick Dines, “is so dark and moody. And it’s so much lighter, and approached so much more comedically, because of this music-hall construct.  (Holmes) was like, ‘if the actors go read the novel they’re going to get dark and moody and kill the show!’ You can’t lose the urgency of it being a murder mystery—but it’s a comedy.”

SCT’s production contains a cast of 15—“we’ve pretty much trimmed the large ensemble out of the show,” says Dines, but “we really have a cast of all-stars for it. Another part of the ‘music hall’ construct is that, some of the most famous music-hall performers of the era were women performing as men, this male impersonator. So the title character of Drood, the young man, is played by a woman. And Michaela Karr is brilliant as Edwin Drood.” Adds Heath Hillhouse, “this entire cast has really just come together and just poured themselves out, and stepped up to meet this extreme challenge, and I think have just really created something wonderful. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this excited to get a show in front of an audience. I don’t think I ever have.” The large cast includes Jeremy Sullivan, appearing courtesy of Actors' Equity Association on a Special Appearance Contract.

Alex Huff directs what Dines calls “an amazing orchestra—the largest percussion ensemble I’ve ever had to fit into this theatre!”

After the opening weekend which starts Friday June 14, performances of “Edwin Drood” will be Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through June 30.  The two Thursday shows are "Pay What You Can" nights. Opening Weekend receptions follow the Friday and Saturday June 14 and 15 performances, complete with “bubbly and birthday cake” to commemorate SCT’s 25th anniversary. Also, there will be talkback sessions with director and cast following the Thursday June 20 and Sunday June 23rd shows. Tickets range from $12-$30.

Before we concluded, Rick Dines went over the rest of the 2019-2020 season of Springfield Contemporary Theatre. “We follow this up with David Mamet’s wonderfully provocative and interesting play ‘Race’ (July 26-August 11). Two lawyers at the head of a racially integrated firm find themselves defending a wealthy white executive charged with raping a black woman. “That’s followed by the Tony Award-winning play ‘The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime’ (Sept.6-22), based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel. Just a breathtaking play.

“Then a world premiere play written by Sandy Asher (‘Death Valley: A Love Story’).  We have a New York director coming in to direct it who’s really remarkable (Alan Souza). (Dates are Oct.25-Nov.10.) And then in December the Tony-winning play ‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’—the sequel, as it were, to Ibsen’s classic. Then in January, ‘Side By Side With Sondheim’ in celebration of his 90th birthday. In February, a pretty brand-new play called ‘Oppenheimer,’ about the Manhattan Project. It started out at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London—this is only the second production of it in the United States after the L.A. mounting last fall. A very sweeping, sweeping play. Then in March, a play that just recently closed off-Broadway called ‘The Cake,’ about a young woman who approaches her mother’s best friend about creating the wedding cake for her wedding. Of course, her mother’s best friend is over the moon about doing it, but then discovers she’s marrying another woman. And then the season closes (May 1-17, 2020) with another huge musical, ‘Parade,’ written by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, who wrote ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’”

For individual or season tickets call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.