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Picture it... A dark and (sort of) stormy night. As thunder rolls and lightning strikes, murder is afoot, and it is up to the audience to figure out who the murderer is in Stray Dog Theatre's outstanding production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
  
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a musical based on Charles Dickens' last and unfinished novel – hence the need for audience participation. Dickens got the majority of the story completed, but he died before he could write the ending. The actors give the audience clues throughout the production (in obvious and campy ways), and it is up to the audience to pick the murderer. It was the first Broadway musical to have multiple endings since every show could have a myriad of final combinations. 
 
The charm of The Mystery of Edwin Drood lies in the fact that the “fourth wall” is torn down as The Chairman (Gerry Love) interacts directly with the audience. He introduces each character and serves as an advocate for the audience ensuring no clues go unnoticed. (Nod nod wink wink, you get the idea)
 
The story is deliciously complex and full of colorful characters and intriguing storylines. One storyline focuses on the love triangle between John Jasper (Zachary Stefaniak), Rosa Bud (Eileen Engel) and Jasper's nephew, Edwin Drood (Heather Matthews). John is a choirmaster who is obsessed with his pupil, Rosa, who has an arranged marriage to Edwin. Enter the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Patrick Kelly) who ushers in two recent foreign (Indian) immigrants, siblings Helena (Kimberly Still) and Neville Landless (Kelvin Urday). Neville and Edwin clash instantly and the plot thickens. 
 
The next character to enter is Princess Puffer (Lavonne Byers) who runs an underground opium den in London. We then discover that John Jasper is one of her “clients.” During one of his “sessions”, John reveals his love for Rosa which piques Princess Puffer's curiosity. Rounding out the cast of potential killers is Bazzard (Michael A. Wells - who is really just a bit part in the grand scheme, but charming nonetheless), Durdles (Eric Woelbling) and his assistant Deputy (Kevin Connelly) who work in the crypts and have both had suspicious dealings with John Jasper. 
 
While this is just a short overview of each of the main characters involved, the story of Drood is fascinating to watch unfold. With a cast of 19 and a live band of seven, director Justin Been had his hands full. His direction – along with his talented cast and crew –  was successful on all fronts.
 
To put it bluntly, the ensemble worked together brilliantly. While Love, Stefaniak, Kelly, and Urday all turned in hilarious and memorable performances, it was the ladies of the cast that impressed me the most. 
 
Fresh off her St. Louis Theater Circle win for “Outstanding Actress in a Musical” for her work in Cabaret (also produced by Stray Dog Theatre), Lavonne Byers shines once again as Princess Puffer. An outstanding aspect of Byers is how she commits to every nuance of her role. In the second act, during her musical solo,”The Garden Path to Hell,” there was a lull in the music and a huge thunder roll raged above the theater.  With just the twitch of her eyebrow she made it appear as if this was part of the number – a testament to her ability to roll with the punches. It was a moment of true treasure for live theater.  
 
The rest of the ladies in the cast were equally impressive. Matthews as Drood was refreshing and engaging, Still's delivery as Helena was a comedic highpoint of the show and Engel, who played Rosa, killed it (and I mean killed it) with her gorgeous vocal delivery. 
 
The versatility of the cast is also impressive on the technical side. Engel not only played Rosa, she did an outstanding job serving as the production's Costume Designer. Equally impressive was Stefaniak, who played John, as the production's choreographer. The movements during the musical numbers were captivating. Keeping in line with these two, Tyler Duenow's lighting work was impressive as was Chris Petersen's musical direction. 
 
The bottom line for this production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that everything works. Gary F. Bell and company do Dickens proud by producing an amazing night of live theater. An excellent technical staff combined with outstanding acting performances makes this production a must see. 
 
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through April 18th. For tickets and show times, please visit straydogtheatre.org
 
You can follow me on Twitter @ReviewerJim 
 
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