There’s nothing quite like the magic of sitting in the audience at the performance of a musical. This week, Gonzaga students and community members can experience that magic themselves at the performance of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a musical that is a collaborative effort of the theatre, dance and music departments.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is not only the first musical to be performed at GU since winter of 2017, but it is also a show that allows for audience participation. The musical will be performed Nov. 11-13 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. in the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center.
The musical is based on Charles Dickens’ last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which was left unfinished because Dickens died before he could complete it, said Leslie Stamoolis, GU theater program director and costume designer for the musical. The musical was written in 1986 by Rupert Holmes, who had the idea to make the musical a murder mystery that the audience is tasked with solving.
At the end of the show, the audience votes on who they think murdered Drood, so the actors had to learn all the different possible endings to prepare for the show.
“If there was ever a show to see twice, it’s this show, because chances are you will see a second ending the second time you see it,” Stamoolis said.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is set in Victorian-era England and takes the form of a play-within-a-play. The audience is spoken to by a troupe of Victorian actors from 1892 who tell the audience that it is their first time performing their new musical, Stamoolis said. This means that each actor plays two characters in the show and gets to switch between them at times as well.
Rodrigo Gonzalez, a junior philosophy major who plays Neville Landless, said that each character in the show gives away clues as to their motives in the story, which ultimately helps the audience decide on different aspects of the mystery. Depending on what the audience chooses, the show’s ending can highlight different characters.
“Like a total diva, I would like to have a solo, because I’ve been working really hard on it and it sounds really nice, but even if it’s not my solo, all of the principle roles have a custom-made solo, and it’s very amusing, engaging and it really does kind of make sure that the play doesn’t have any plot holes in it,” Gonzalez said.
Jadd Davis, the director of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” said the show was chosen because it fit with what everyone involved in the selection process wanted to see from a musical at GU.
Since the musical is a collaboration between the theater and music departments, it needed to be a show that had challenging music and choras numbers, Davis said. Students also voiced their desire to perform a lighthearted, comedic piece, which “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” satisfied as well.
“We wanted to be able to accommodate a large cast of music student and theater students and just general university students at large in a way that there was an entry point for everybody to be involved,” Davis said.
The musical also includes complex aspects of race and gender in the text, and although it was originally written to satirize British colonialism, Davis said there are some problematic elements that have to do with the tone of the text.
At the first rehearsal, the cast discussed problematic elements of the show and what they could do about them, and Davis acknowledged that the cast knows what they are talking about when it comes to the ways gender and other complex topics are being discussed because it comes down to lived experiences.
Gonzalez’s character, Neville Landless, is a person of color and an immigrant who is highly antagonized in the musical. This was part of what the cast discussed at the start of the rehearsal process, although Gonzalez said that his character is more motivated by being suave than anything, and he feels his character will receive a positive reaction from the audience.
“It’s been a constant conversation of how are we celebrating the diversity of the gender spectrum [and] how are we celebrating a multicultural cast within this framework of a show that is a little problematic as written,” Davis said.
Stamoolis also said that choosing a show that speaks to the current moment and has the opportunity for a large and diverse cast was imperative in the selection process. Now that we can gather again, Stamoolis says celebrating the return of the audience was especially important.
“Because this show is so audience-dependent, not just audience interaction but dependent on the audience’s involvement, it felt like the right way to welcome people back to a live theater communal experience,” Stamoolis said.
Audrey Stevenson, a sophomore civil engineering major who plays Edwin Drood, said it feels like the audience is a character in the show because of how much the cast breaks the fourth wall. “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is Stevenson’s first show at GU, and she said that after a year of not being able to do live theater, she would have regretted it if she hadn’t auditioned.
For Stevenson, the most rewarding parts of being in the musical have been building community and the level of professionalism that the show has been produced at. She hopes that the audience laughs at the show and leaves with a smile on their face as well.
Colin Speirs, a senior business administration major who plays John Jasper, the male lead, also enjoys performing in musicals and the relationships that are formed throughout the rehearsal process.
Speirs described the musical as an energetic show that is a good reintroduction to live theater after missing out on it due to the pandemic. For him, the mystery of how the musical is going to end each night is the most exciting part of the show.
“We don’t know how it’s going to end either until the audience votes,” Speirs said. “So it’s a mystery for us, until the audience decides it.”
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is fulfilling the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center’s initial purpose — to host collaborative arts programming featuring students and faculty across the theater, dance and music departments all working together, Stamoolis said.
“This show is really a culmination of the goals of this building, and it’s been a long time coming for us to get something like this together,” Stamoolis said.