At Hubbard Hall, an award-winning musical mystery takes some fresh twists and turns

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CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — When Charles Dickens penned the novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," he wasn't aware that it would be his final work or that it would remain unfinished. But so it did, as Dickens died in 1870 as the result of a stroke following an entire day of work on the book.

This unfortunate fate for one of the world's great literary writers opened the door for composer, songwriter and author Rupert Holmes to finish the job in 1985. Over the next two weeks, regional audiences will have an opportunity to see the Tony= and Drama Desk award-winning musical, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," directed by David Snider.

The production begins performances Friday evening at Hubbard Hall Arts and Education Center, where it is scheduled to run weekends through Dec. 3. Press opening is Saturday evening.

For this production, Holmes has updated the script and the music in brand new unpublished changes that regional theatergoers will be the first to see.

"`The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is a legendary American musical that isn't produced as often as it should because it has many moving pieces in its acting, music, and choreography," Snider said. "We've been very fortunate to have Rupert Holmes with us during a number of rehearsals. He's been very open to assist and to add new touches to many parts of the show, including tailoring it to this particular production at Hubbard Hall."

Snider, who took over the helm at Hubbard Hall Projects, Inc. as executive director in 2014, has wanted to bring "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" to Hubbard Hall because the venue is "a Victorian opera house built less than a decade after Dickens' death, making it the perfect temporal setting for the musical's staging."

The show is a story within a story, not directly following Dickens' novel, but rather telling the tale of a traveling theater troupe from England that is acting out the original mystery.

In both works, however, the central question remains: Who killed Edwin Drood? Was it his sneering enemy, John Jasper? Or perhaps the notorious Princess Puffer? Could it have been one of the Landless twins? Or maybe one of the other devious and wicked characters?

Holmes created an interactive work in which the audience gets to decide who did the deed.

But along with this final vote, audience members are asked throughout the evening to make decisions regarding who is doing what to whom, and how relationships between characters develop.

This audience participation element not only keeps the evening hopping, but has had Holmes ever busy with new and fresh ideas. He said all of these elements in his musical played into his close collaboration with Snider and Hubbard Hall.

"David Snider's career credentials in the theater are impeccable," Holmes said. "It wasn't a hard sell, to have `The Mystery of Edwin Drood' suddenly shift from England to the Albany area, and to somehow have this group of traveling actors end up stranded in a beautiful, grand opera house in little Cambridge, N.Y."

This change in scenery, Holmes continued, meant rewriting multiple parts of his material..

Veteran actor Christine Decker is playing Princess Puffer, one of the central characters - and murder suspects. She said that Holmes' presence and direct involvement has brought new challenges and rewards each day of rehearsal.

"I'm not sure where [he] gets his energy," Decker said with a smile. "The original musical itself requires actors to give it their all. But with these new adjustments and the audience voting, there's no margin to relax for a moment. Every moment of rehearsals requires intense focus, and [his] creation is keeping us all on our toes."

Actor Tim Garner, a New Zealand native based in New York City, is playing Bazzard and Phillip Bax, agreed with Decker about Holmes' creative burst, saying this productions was unlike anything with which he had been involved.

"Working on this production ... has tested all of us in a good way, and allowed us to see [Holmes'] genius," Garner said. "... working in this grand Victorian opera house with its beautiful architecture and Holmes recreating the show to fit the venue has been a true inspiration."

Holmes' instinct as an artist left a final wish for the Hubbard Hall production.

"Life is tough and even people who seem to have it easy don't have it easy," Holmes mused. "People out there have all kinds of problems they are coping with. If this work can take them out of that troublesome world, or make them not think [about] some things which are making them sad, or make them feel young again and laughing again, then that's a fine goal to have as an artist."

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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