The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Through Nov. 1
Great Lakes Theater Festival
2067 E. 14th St.
Hollywood folklore has it that Katharine Hepburn elucidated the magic of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers partnership like this: "He gives her class, she gives him sex." Coincidentally, 70 years later, the same alchemy holds true for the marriage of the PlayhouseSquare's Hanna Theatre with the Great Lakes Theater Festival.
With last season's graceful swan dive into the Chekhovian canon, GLTF decidedly gave the refurbished old theater tone. Presently, with the same company's foray into British pantomime, the Hanna — where theater greats of the last century trod the boards and where their spirits apparently still linger — is lending saucy brio to the company's current production.
It would be simple to attribute the two hours of unrelenting fizz to the gifts of The Mystery of Edwin Drood's creator, Rupert Holmes, or to lots of rehearsal or a talented company of thespians. All of this is true, but so boringly pedantic.
Anyone who has shivered through The Shining or any of the countless incarnations of The Turn of the Screw has already intuited the deeper truth — in this production, the Hanna's ghosts have been revived.
The premise of the musical is a Victorian London troop enacting the unfinished gothic mystery by Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The show's greatest joy is its cunning encapsulation of 19th-century music-hall style. Its money-in-the-bank gimmick is letting the audience vote on the resolution.
Since winning the 1986 Tony for best musical, Drood has proven rather an enjoyable, if ephemeral, lark. In this particular incarnation, it has evolved into a far more substantial bird of paradise. This fleshing out we can only attribute to the theater ghosts.
Everyone recognizes director Victoria Bussert's flair for unearthing the lusty aspects of any musical. Yet the unbridled Victorian carnality displayed here would lead us to believe that the deceased master of the musical, George Abbott, was whispering suggestions from the upper balconies.
An indelible image that will haunt audiences is the opium-induced dream sequence in which prostitutes silently emerge from the bed between the legs of the astounded Jasper (Jonas Cohen). Perhaps choreographer Martin Cespedes had a nudge for this brilliant bit from the specter of Jerome Robbins.
We can only speculate which designers' ghosts caused Jeff Herrmann to create detailed but astutely economical sets and Charlotte Yetman to concoct costumes with an artful combination of whimsy and gothic.
Was it John Gielgud, Claude Raines, Dame Edith Evans or perhaps the Lunts that coached the company into British music-hall perfection? Performances by Aled Davies, Jodi Dominick, Sara M. Bruner and Emily Leonard have an ectoplasmic glow. One haunting we can be sure of: Laura Perrotta as the mysterious proprietress of the opium den took on not only the appearance but also the mercurial luminosity that could only emanate from the effervescent Gertrude Lawrence.
If this ghostly trend continues, the Great Lakes Theater Festival will have to replace the tritely living Tom Hanks with that divinely departed blithe spirit Noel Coward to materialize for their next benefit.