There's a great opportunity at the Kavinoky Theatre right now, where its production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has audiences experiencing theater in an unexpected way: at each performance, the audience chooses the ending.
Let's back up.
"Drood," as the show is sometimes known, is a musical comedy by Rupert Holmes, based on the last novel Charles Dickens wrote, a murder mystery about a young man, Drood, his scheming uncle, a love interest here and there, and a few other archetypes that fill in the scenery of most Dickens tales (read: prostitutes and drunks).
As the real-life novel was never finished, the matter of whodunit remains unknown, though this is widely speculated about in literary circles. Despite this, Holmes takes one clever advantage over the next in structuring a show that is funny, suspenseful, true to its source material and beyond inventive. It is in fact expressly inventive. With audience participation guiding the big reveal, each performance is different, a move that keeps ticket buyers and actors on their toes, the suspense of which is its own entertainment.
The downside - and it's not a big deal, though certainly a palpable one - is that while Holmes' structure is brilliant, Dickens' story is not. That the completed novel would likely not have made an impact on the writer's reputation is an understatement.
The musical's concept is that we are watching a comically earnest (read: comically subpar) acting troupe perform this Dickens story, a play-within-a-play. The troupe addresses the weaknesses in its play, but pleads with us to hang on during the mystery's exposition in order to get us to the explanation. The 90-minute first act can feel like a chore, but the second act is such a breeze, it feels an epilogue.
Let's thank a tremendous cast for keeping things afloat and fun, despite the intermittent boredom. Director Norman Sham has done a wonderful job of managing all of this mayhem, punctuating it with vaudevillian panache. There are too many fine performances to mention adequately here, but a few made special impressions on opening night.
Brian Mysliwy is the acting troupe's charmain, Mr. William Cartwright. This is a role Mysliwy could probably play in his sleep, but for which you would stay up all night to watch. He's masterful as an apologetic, too-proud showman, the brilliant glue of the roughly 40 characters this 17-person cast pulls off.
Michele Marie Roberts, as Drood, plays the drag component well (the acting company is shorthanded), and pulls a surprisingly convincing diva card as Miss Alice Nutting. The duality of each Kavinoky actor's role - as troupe actor and "Drood" character - is best on display here. Roberts plays both commanding parts brazenly and fiercely, with wonderful results.
Tom Owen, Marc Sacco, Charmagne Chi, Brian Riggs, Gerry Maher and Eliza Hayes Maher use all the well-developed gags and bits we've come to know and love over the years; they are actors playing actors, the meta-ironies of which are always entertaining.
But it was Kevin R. Kennedy and Debbie Pappas who won the audience members' hearts (and votes, for happily-ever-after lovers), as Bazzard and Princess Puffer, respectively. Kennedy, whose acting acumen is too-rarely seen in large enough roles, is charming, delightful and, befitting the actor, bafflingly odd. Pappas pulls the kind of big dirty laughs (she's our prostitute) in an effortless, calculated way that proves the comedy-is-harder-than-drama truism. Carol Burnett mastered that method, and Pappas squarely follows in her footsteps.
This is a sharp production of a smart show. It exalts the love of storytelling in a way that treats its actors, audiences and source material to a satisfying, complete night of theater. Dickens should be proud, if even a little jealous, of the way his life's final mystery finds its resolution.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
4 stars (Out of four)
Through Oct. 7 in the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $35-$39. Call 829-7668 or visit www.kavinokytheatre.com.