At Hubbard Hall, a high-spirited production of an encumbered musical

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CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — Rupert Holmes' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" opens with a robust welcome — especially in Hubbard Hall's frequently zesty, spirited, never less than hard working production — to the audience, "There You Are," led by the show's host and narrator, Chairman William Cartwright (an adept and engaging Micah Sauvageau in a performance that occasionally channels "Cabaret's" eerie Emcee). It's a hearty song that acknowledges the differences among audience members and suggests that differences disappear and all are embraced by the illusory elements of the theater.

Disguise, it turns out, is critical in "Drood," based on Charles Dickens' unfinished last novel which Holmes and company seek to complete by having the audience decide, by popular vote, who the killer is before the show moves on to a conclusion based upon the audience vote.

"Edwin Drood" plays heavily on the artifice of theater. None of the characters in this Victorian mystery is who he or she appears to be. Playing off a rich English theater tradition, a few of the itinerant actors are introduced as renowned male impersonators (skillful Hubbard Hall veteran Erin Ouelette as Colleen O'Keefe/Neville Landless seems to making a career as the Hall's own leading male impersonator. Some characters resort to disguise. It's no accident that the cast members are identified by their "real" Victorian actor and actress names, as well as the characters they are playing; not to mention their real-life today's world names.

Pretense on pretense on pretense.

It's a complicated plot that involves a bit of lechery, a dip into the dark side of Victorian life; royal siblings from the Far East; a voice teacher with an unsettling interest in an 18-year-old female student for whom he writes a special song — "Moonfall," sung with haunting effectiveness by Kyra Fitzgerald's Rosa Bud; love lost; love gained. And then there is the sudden disappearance of young Edward Drood

The audience is never far removed from this English music hall entertainment which Holmes has re-fashioned somewhat for this production. Cast members circulate through the audience, especially before the opening number, chatting with audience members at random, flirting in some cases. For Hubbard Hall, Holmes has re-framed the show as a kind of play within a play, performed by an itinerant company of British actors who have been touring upstate New York but have run out of funds and are looking to raise enough to return to their native England.

Director David Snider's production moves with energy and style, especially through the early portions of the first act, and the performances throughout are strong and convincing. It's Holmes' material that runs out of steam. I remember the original New York production 32 years ago being, for all its invention, cumbersome and weighty.

For all of Holmes' efforts to trim his material here and the deftness and style of Darcy May's playful choreography, "Edwin Drood" still gets in its own way, especially as it unravels all its turns and twists on its home stretch drive to reveal the identity of the killer and provide a happy ending.for all.


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