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Aiken Playhouse presents a solve-it-yourself musical

May 25, 2017

Typically, actors in musical theater production commit to learning a set amount of lines and songs on top of their choreography. Once they learn their parts, the cast presents from the same set script for each individual showing.

The actors’ jobs in the next Aiken Community Playhouse musical aren’t so straightforward.

The musical is “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” based on the unfinished Charles Dickens novel of the same title.

“The story itself deals with John Jasper, a Jekyll-and-Hyde choirmaster who is quite madly in love with his music student, the fair Miss Rosa Bud. Now, Miss Bud is, in turn, engaged to Jasper’s nephew, young Edwin Drood. Our title character disappears mysteriously one stormy Christmas Eve – but has Edwin Drood been murdered? And if so, then whodunnit?” the play’s description from the Playhouse says.

Since Dickens never finished his book, the musical doesn’t have a written-in-stone ending.

In order to figure out what could have happened to Drood, the Victorian musical troupe known as the Music Hall Royale defers to the audience.

“This is the opening night of this new show they’ve put together, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ based on ... an unfinished Dickens (story),” said director Lisa Kirschner. “Since it’s unfinished, there is not an ending, so the Music Hall Royale decides to put on a show and gives the audience the opportunity to vote on the ending.”

Each night the audience will vote on what could have happened to Drood, on a pair of lovers and on a detective.

“It’s manageable, but it does add a whole lot of complexity,” Kirschner said.

The director has helped her actors prepare to present the show for its decisive audiences.

One way is the cast has run through different scenarios.

“Everybody has to learn like two extra numbers because, depending on the ending that gets chosen, they might have to do their words to one of these couple of tunes,” Kirschner said.

There are audience participation opportunities during the show.

“It’s the 1890s, and this particular kind of entertainment that they do, with people playing actors and so forth, it’s very, very broad,” said assistant director Marcia Harris. “They talk to the audience. The audience is supposed to answer back, so it’s a very fluid situation which we don’t see very much.”

Music director David Brown praised the caliber of the performers’ talents.

“We really got lucky. This is a superb cast. Whatever direction they got from me was just minimal,” he said. “It’s not an easy show to perform, especially for the singers, because they have to spit out these words at a fairly fast tempo, and it has to be understood by everyone.”

The singers’ voices will be set against live orchestral music, directed by Alex Henderson.

“It’s very instrumental,” he said from the orchestra pit. “You have to work with singers above you and the orchestra down on this level. Bringing it all together is a challenge, and it’s interesting.”

Henderson picked the orchestra’s members, which came from around the CSRA.

Last week was the first time the orchestra was able to merge its instrumentation with the singers’ voices. Before that night, the ensemble’s rehearsal spaces included St. John’s United Methodist Church and Aiken’s First Baptist Church.

The musical was written and composed by Rupert Holmes, who also wrote the notable “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).”

“If you just know Rupert Holmes from that song, you are going to very much be surprised because the score that he’s written is like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, though it’s not as edgy as Stephen Sondheim’s music,” Brown said. “He puts in some things musically that just kind of surprise you.”

The Playhouse play’s production staff also features stage manager Ali McCormack, choreographer Morgan Welch, costumer Alex Ansede and set designer Jessica Kirschner. Duane Berning helped with set design and construction.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” opens this weekend at the AECOM Center for Performing Arts, 126 Newberry St. S.W. It will run Friday, Saturday and June 2-3 and 9-10 at 7:30 p.m. and June 4 at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and active military and $15 for students.

For more information, call 803-648-1438 or visit www.aikencommunityplayhouse.us.