How can a musical with such a superabundance of appeal as "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which opened last evening at the Imperial, still seem wanting?
I suppose, finally, that it is because Dickens died before he could complete the story and resolve its mystery. Yet that very fact is what prompted Rupert Holmes, the clever and undeniably gifted creator of the show's book, music and lyrics, to write it in the first place.
As those of you who saw it in a slightly different version this past summer in Central Park know, it is left to the audience to explain the disappearance of young Drood. The audience is encouraged to raise hands midway through Act II to decide on Drood's murderer and a couple of other matters. And Holmes has provided a variety of solutions, with songs to match, so that there could be many different conclusions in a week's performances.
We are in an English music hall, circa 1870, whose "chairman," William Cartwright (George Rose), introduces and presides over the evening's entertainment, interrupting from time to time to offer humorous comments and, in one instance, to pay off a bit actor not needed for the rest of the show.
This night's entertainment is, as he explains, "Drood," at least up to that point. And white it is skimpy Dickens, even on the short work's own terms, it introduces all the major characters and swirls them about in a high-spirited romp marked by the broad acting style of Victorian melodrama, punctuated by musical numbers ranging from mock music hall tunes to ambitious arias and duets, all sustained by deft lyrics.
But aside from the fact that the sound system governing the orchestra and voices is so ill-balanced that lyrics are frequently blurred, the score is almost too versatile, so that the desired music hall unity is adulterated. And with all the interruptions and striking individual scenes, we do tend to lose interest in the mystery itself.
Nevertheless, what a show! Rose is invaluable, his every reading, whether of song or speech, a delight. And what a splendid array of performers surrounding him! Berry Buckley is a handsome Drood, and Cleo Laine, though her extraordinary voice is mostly limited, because of character demands, to its lower register, is marvelous as the opium den mother, Princess Puffer.
Howard McGillin, who must immediately go to the top of the list of young leading men in Broadway musicals, is wonderful as the venal choirmaster John Jasper. Patti Cohenour, who was paired with McGillin in one of last season's "Boheme" casts, sings beautifully and is the image of doll-like perfection as the demure Rosa Bud who - no! it could not be! - was voted as Drood's murderess at the Sunday night preview I saw.
Other winning work was done by the sensationally attrative Jana Schneider as a sinuous and wily Indian maiden, by George Martin as the Reverend Crisparkle, by Jerome Dempsey as the besotted crypt attendant Durdles, and by all others in the large cast.
Wilford Leach has staged the show lovingly, and Graciela Daniele has created several exuberant, and one amusingly depraved, dance routines. On top of this there is Bob Shaw's bounteous scenery, Lindsay W. Davis' terrific costumes, and Paul Gallo's fine lighting. Add to this, despite the over-amplication, Michael Starobin's sparkling musical direction.
In addition to his virtuoso performance as author of both book and songs, which range all the way from the enchanting solo "Moonfall" to the lively ensemble piece "Don't Quit While You're Ahead," Holmes also has provided his own fluent orchestrations.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" went on a bit too long and a trifle too unsteadily to win my wholehearted admiration. Even so, it's an eyeful and an earful and, though this might not be saying much, it's certainly the best musical I've seen so far this year.
Unquestionably, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which last night slid with stealthy gusto into the Imperial Theater, offers an enjoyable, entertaining evening of style, Dickens, and musical mayhem.
But as Charles Dickens himself would surely have been the first to observe this new Rupert Holmes musical, with its whodunit ending and fixit-yourself scenario, is, also unquestionably, an odd fish.
When the 58-year-old Dickens, a man in burnt-out health, started to write his detective novel, Edwin Drood, in something of the manner of his opium-doused friend Wilkie Collins, only God and Dickens knew how it would end.
The death of Dickens halfway through the project left only God the wiser, and Dickensian scholars ever since have tried to solve its mysteries - who was the muderer, was there indeed a murder, for Drood simply "disappears," who was the mysterious detective Dick Datchery, and could even Dickens have convincingly contrived some semblance of a happy ending?
Amd this, the skeptic asks, is to be the basis of a musical? Musical, schmoozical - snoozical!!
Yet our hero, Rupert Holmes, hot from pop successes with the Top 10 and Barbra Streisand, who proposed to write book, music, lyrics, and even orchestrations, was undaunted.
He met another undaunted hero in Central Park, that entrepreneur of mixed blessings, Joseph Papp, and they resolved to make music together.
Here, transported from a summer tryout with the New York Shakespeare Festival, refurbished, turned around a bit, but with the same doughty director, Wilford Leach, and virtually the same cast, the show is now at hand to mystify Broadway.
In approaching Drood, Holmes had a moment of practically divine inspiration - enclose the whole production as if it were being given within the framework of an old-time English music hall.
Easy enough now to say: "Elementary, my dear Watson," but it is this stroke that makes the whole show viable, and, more even than Dickens, gives it its particular flavor and quality.
Many of the conventions of the Victorian music-hall form - which survived for many years into this country, battered but intact - have been used by Holmes and Leach to good effect.
Here for example we have the traditional gravel-trumping, port-sipping Chairman of the revels, and we also have young Drood himself played by a woman, a "male impersonator," in the real-life music hall tradition of a Vesta Tilley or Hetty King.
Of course, the true music hall would not deal with a narrative, although even here there is a precedent in the Christmas pantomimes staged by the tiny Players' Theater under the arches of London's Charing Cross Embankment.
So the setting is right. the idea brilliant. But, oddly enough - and I warned you this was an odd fish - Holmes has not really used the pastiche of music-hall songs that might have been expected.
Some of his score sounds like something Lerner and Loewe dreamed up for Fair Lady and rejected. Then there are a couple of Victorian-style ballads, and a patter duet more in the manner of Donizetti or Gilbert & Sullivan than the robuster music of the music hall.
Certain English pop-groups, such as Herman's Hermits and, particularly, the Kinks, have caught and modified the idiom more persuasively. And more authentically.
No real matter. Holmes's score while no blockbuster, is modestly tuneful, and the lyrics are well-turned.
The charm of the show is its idea. The staging and acting are not Dickensian in the fashion of Nicholas Nickleby or even its brillian Mark Twain musical spin-off, Big River, but they have their own charm and push.
There is real vitality here, and not only in the settings by Bob Shaw, or the exaggeratedly Dickensian costuming by Lindsay W. Davis, or the relentless pace and imaginating of Leach's staging and Graciela Daniele's witty choreography.
This, Edwin Drood is, above all, two things. An audience show and a performance show.
Right from the opening the audience is besought to play a positive part in the proceedings - it settles, by genuine democratic suffrage, the identity of the murderer and Dick Datchery - from clues provided by Dickens and underlined by both scenario and the helpful Chairman - and also is entrusted with the nature of the happy ending.
The resourceful Holmes has, it is trusted, written for every contigency - short of a revolution nominating the Chairman himself as murderer - so each show is capable of many endings.
As for the performers - they have a ball, although the ball is so evenly distributed between the players that, apart from the avuncular George Rose, shinly effulgent as the Chairman, and even doubling up as Mayor Sapsea, there is interestingly no really star role.
Rose has the music hall manner pat and perfect, from his wispily flowing side-whiskers to his rasping conviviality, his naughtily glinting double entendres, and his genteel gentility. A rich, juicily judicious performance.
The rest are fine. It is slightly disappointing to find Cleo Laine, England's greatest jazz singer and a national treasure, being given so little to sing as the opium-den matron, Princess Puffer - but what she is given she makes golden.
Betty Buckley is absolutely right as Edwin Drood, and her flouncing exit as a rejected actress - you have to see it to understand it - provides one of the high spots of the show.
Howard McGillin, as mad as a Lewis Carroll hatter and suggestive of fantastic Victorian secret vices, makes a splendid Jasper, the deranged music teacher and choirmaster who is Edwin's rival for the hand of Rosa Budd, played with roselike ingenuousness indeed by the adorable Patti Cohenour.
This cast of many talents is rounded out with John Herrara and Jana Schneider as the mysterious Singalese couple, the Landlesses; George M. Martin as the blusteringly befuddled Crisparkle; Jerome Dempsey as the sodden gravedigger Durdles; and, best of all among the lesser but still bright lights, Joe Grifasi as the histrionically ambitious Bazzard.
So what the Dickens is a musical like this doing on Broadway?
Go to the Imperial Theater and find out - you'll have a good time.
It's easy to throw a festive party at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where the moon is full, the tickets are free and no one need rush to a cab. Holding that party in the more rarefied environment of the Imperial Theater is another matter. ''The Mystery of Edwin Drood,'' the New York Shakespeare Festival musical of last summer, depends almost entirely on a picnic atmosphere to work its way with theatergoers. The main mystery posed by the Broadway arrival of ''Edwin Drood'' is whether the show's raucous, not to mention erratic, charms can retain their buoyancy indoors.
On that crucial score, the news is good. To be sure, Rupert Holmes's loose adaptation of the novel Dickens left half-finished at his death still feels unfinished itself - even with trims and refinements, Act I can seem as long as ''Bleak House'' - but the Act II payoff remains considerable. When the evening's unbeatable emcee, George Rose, leads the audience in a series of hand votes to determine the identity of the title character's murderer and other narrative variations, the atmosphere in the theater becomes as merry as that of an unchaperoned auditorium of high-school kids. Such are the additional surprises in the songs prompted by the plebiscite that the company and audience become united, as intended, in the joy of theatrical invention.
Now as before, little else in ''Edwin Drood'' can quite match the spontaneous fun of that final 45 minutes. What carries the evening along until its liftoff is largely the energy and panache of a winning cast that, in addition to Mr. Rose, boasts the superb singing actors Cleo Laine, Betty Buckley, Howard McGillin and Patti Cohenour. Some patience and a proper frame of mind are required to ride over the rough spots, too. Not for nothing does Mr. Rose instruct us early on to loosen our belts and be ''as vulgar and uncivilized as we can.''
The evening's premise is a funny one - an attempted hybrid of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' ''Noises Off'' and the Shakespeare Festival's own ''Pirates of Penzance.'' The setting is a Victorian music hall in London, where a hammy, second-rate troupe led by Mr. Rose is performing its own ''musicale with dramatic interludes'' based on Dickens. The adaptation is almost completely unfaithful to its source: The 1870 novel's dark psychosexual atmosphere, social criticism, Gothic horror, as well as some of its characters, are either truncated or watered down to the primary colors of ''Oliver!'' Even the basic plot - in which the evil Cloisterham choirmaster John Jasper (Mr. McGillin) is pitted against the virtuous orphans Drood (Miss Buckley, in masculine guise) and Rosa Bud (Miss Cohenour) - sometimes seems garbled.
To some extent, that's the point. In lieu of Dickens's book, Mr. Holmes wants to give us jokes about the 19th-century thespians who wreak havoc on it. Some of these gags, especially those delivered by Mr. Rose's wry impresario and Miss Buckley's huffy prima donna, ignite. But many others are flat. What's missing from the script and Wilford Leach's direction is the maniacal conviction that allows the fleabag acting troupes pictured in plays like ''Noises Off,'' ''Nickleby'' and ''The Dresser'' to achieve a transcendentally nutty awfulness. During Act I of ''Drood,'' the company often seems to put quotation marks around its more melodramatic flourishes - mocking its own mockery and nudging us in the ribs prior to every punchline. The more the performers are in on the joke, the further we stay outside it.
Mr. Holmes's songs are also at their best when their lyrics (some literate, some soupy) don't strain for laughs. While a Gilbert-and-Sullivan pastiche sounds pro forma and a new opening number is as forgettable as its predecessor, the duds (all of them in Act I) are easily outnumbered by the tuneful pop ballads and showbiz struts that give the cast its standout moments. Miss Cohenour, whose porcelain heroine has just the right fetching hint of spine, still delivers a surging ''Moonfall.'' Mr. McGillin's robust voice, last heard in this fall's ''Follies,'' sweeps us into the schizoid villain's overwrought dirges. Similarly, Miss Buckley's slightly chilly Drood does much to prevent the lively but saccharine closing anthem from curdling. As the opium den mother, The Princess Puffer, Miss Laine has ripened her smoky saxophone of a vocal instrument and good-naturedly bawdy characterization into one of the production's most consistent assets.
The evening's rambunctious, vaudevillian spirit continues to be quintessentially embodied by Mr. Rose's crinkly, pink-faced host and commentator, who is closer to the tradition of the English Christmas pantomime than that of the American musical. Most of the other laughs belong to Joe Grifasi, as a nebbishy bit player whose prayers of greater glory are amusingly answered, and to Jana Schneider, who memorably impersonates a Ceylonese tigress with fluttering eyelids, a lascivious tongue and what is correctly described as a ''strange, somewhat geographically untraceable accent.'' (She often sounds like a female impersonation of Yul Brynner.) If Mr. Leach has allowed some exuberant excesses to embroider a few of these performances since the summer, he has also presided over the production's improvements. Bob Shaw's toy playhouse sets and Paul Gallo's gaslight-warm lighting have a larger and more delicate palette than before. So have Mr. Holmes's orchestrations, which, under Michael Starobin's spirited conducting, benefit from an infusion of strings. Graciela Daniele's frenetic choreography, however, remains routine: When she is not trying to re-create her kickline from ''Penzance'' or letting a promisingly erotic opium fantasy sag with repetition, she trots out stridently rubber-kneed buskers who recall Broadway's once ubiquitous imitations of ''My Fair Lady.''
Indeed, the wittiest moment in both the show's choreography and book occurs when they both peter out in mid-breath, at that juncture where, as Mr. Rose explains, ''Charles Dickens put down his pen.'' It's then that the cast fans out among us to solicit our votes in the final sweepstakes. As ingeniously as Mr. Holmes has worked out the variable shenanigans that follow, it may be the populist spirit, as much as anything, that gives the do-it-yourself denouement its kick. No one, after all, really cares who killed Edwin Drood. In a Broadway dominated by technologically oppressive spectacles, it is the display of human hands that lifts this musical to so uncommonly happy an end.