In the Moment: A Chat with the Director and Cast Members of George Mason University’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ Which Opens This Friday Night

Ah, theatrical heaven! Being in the midst of the usually unseen controlled chaos of a rehearsal, especially with a large cast. Such a delight, so much infectious, intense energy pervading a large, brightly lit rehearsal room. Your columnist was at a recent rehearsal for the upcoming George Mason University College of Visual and Performing Arts production of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 1986 The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The rehearsal was in the DeLaski Performing Arts facilities at Mason.

Cast of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. Photo by Blake Taft.
The cast of  George Mason University’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Photo by Blake Taft.

It was a good opportunity to discover new and emerging talent that we may soon see on area theater stages and in orchestras.

The rehearsal room was filled with dozens of students energetically working away at all that happens before a production opens. The cast members were working feverishly to refine and polish their specific parts in the Drood musical production, both as an individual character and as member of the troupe.

The students were rehearsing their lines, learning more nuances blocking in the rehearsal space before moving to the main-stage, being guided about various cues, choreographing fights and punches to look realistic without getting hurt, and practicing the singing style required of what is a British Music Hall style of delivery. That means broad, big, strong to reach the audience deeper in the back rows in the days before microphones.

They were working under the watchful eyes of Mason faculty members, including Drood Director Ken Elston, Drood Musical Director Dennis Layendecker, and Stage Manager David Elias. Earlier there was a rehearsal of the large orchestra with dozens of members that will propel the score of nearly 20 songs. Layendecker described the music this way “The show’s challenging score will no doubt provide to be an awesome musical experience for everyone in attendance.”

The George Mason University Orchestra. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.
The George Mason University Orchestra. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.

For those not familiar with the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood it has a book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Some may remember his 1979 pop hit “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” but he is more than a one-hit wonder. He also wrote the Tony Award-nominated (Best Play 2003) Say Goodnight, Gracie, based on the relationship between George Burns and Gracie Allen.

A quick synopsis of the show: To quote from the Mason marketing folk, the show “kicks off when the Music Hall Royale ‘puts on’ its flamboyant rendition of an unfinished Dickens mystery.” It is a purposefully over-the-top musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s last, unfinished novel. Dickens died in 1870 before he could finish this mystery. The Dicken’s novel is named after the character – an orphan named Edwin Drood. The story includes a number of high-spirited and hot-tempered characters. Alas, Drood disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Deirdre Peregrine (Rosa Bud). Photo by Autum Casey.
Deirdre Peregrine (Rosa Bud). Photo by Autum Casey.

The musical is presented in the style of a Victorian music hall in the late 19th century. The production has a master-of-ceremonies, and a score of nearly 20 songs with a big and bold presentation to it. All in fun.

In these contemporary times, there are critical social media aspects to the production including unique manner for the audience to decide who murdered the mysterious orphan Edwin Drood. Mason students have developed an app to allow the audience an interactive vote to determine “whodunit’ prior to finale.

The George Mason University production will have six performances at two different mainstage venues including the Center for the Arts on Mason’s Fairfax campus and Merchant Hall, and the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. Everyone is invited. The performances are open to the public, not just Mason students, faculty, and parents.


Without further adieu, let’s get into the content of this piece. This article is based upon interviews and emails with Mason faculty and cast members of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Dennis M. Layendecker and Ken Elston. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.
From L to  R: Dennis M. Layendecker and Ken Elston. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.

David Siegel: Tell me a bit about the “expanding Musical Theater” activities, and why you decided to expand musical theater activities.

Director Ken Elston: The Schools of Music and Theater have been developing a curriculum for studies in Musical Theater for two years. The existing “Certificate” in musical theater allows a major in one of the two disciplines to complete credits in the other, as well as Dance, and receive a certification on a college transcript. We are now moving a discreet, shared BFA in Musical Theater forward. It is designed for the student interested in and with the unique talents for musical theater and will leverage the strengths of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Mason to provide competitive training in the discipline.

Lately, there have been many headlines about colleges concentrating on providing practical and business-like skills for students. Why is performing arts education, especially for those who may never be professional artists, still important? What does a performing arts education provide?

Creative thinking, collaboration, self-expression, deadline management (who else has an opening night?), and communication are all necessary ingredients in the creative and competitive economy of this Century.

Why are you producing The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Drood is a complex story, wrapped in a delightful musical comedy package. The play is actually about duality (the duality of personality, of performance, of relationships…). The addition of interactive technologies increases the experience of a social dynamic of duality- Can we engage in technology and still be present with others, for example?

How is the joint music/performing arts production of Drood at GMU/CVPA singular?

I know of no other program that utilizes the robust power of each individual unit to create such a program in the arts.

If you were to invite those not associated with GMU to attend a performance of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, what would you say?

We are always trying to open our doors and share the extraordinary work of our students with a wide audience. With Drood, we are engaging the audience on a different and I trust deeper level, and we want to keep them engaged in what we do and how we do it.

In keeping with our theme of Innovation this season, we are planning a lively evening that explores and tests dramatic invention,” Elston said. “When we use new technologies to promote audience interaction, each performance will be truly unique. During the musical, our audience’s active contributions will shape the performance and determine the climax, as at each performance the audience votes for whodunit using social media and mobile devices.”

Clive Paget (John Jasper). Photo by Autum Casey.
Clive Paget (John Jasper). Photo by Autum Casey.

Mason student Caroline Weinroth is the Social Media Assistant Coordinator for the production. She helps run the various social media aspects of the production. Weinroth was clear about social media: “Use it, don’t be afraid, and “talk to the actors!”

Here are some of the Drood social media links:


Alice Nutting (Edwin Drood). Photo by Autum Casey.
Alice Nutting (Edwin Drood). Photo by Autum Casey.

I also had the opportunity to pose some questions to the Mason cast members.

How has The Mystery of Edwin Drood been a unique experience for you?

Hayley Dandreaux (Mason sophomore): Adjusting to the use of technology within the show, we are using multiple projections throughout the show and as well as the audience and the cast members are using their phones in the show.

Justin Sumblin (Mason junior): It has been very interesting maneuvering around the inter-activeness of this show. It has definitely added a large sense of improvisation that I think the audience will enjoy.

Daniel DeVera (Mason senior): The style of the show. Having to do the melodrama style and vaudeville style has been very interesting and so fun. It is completely different than the realism we are always trying to achieve with modern work so learning a different style is a great acting tool to have.

Gabriel Komisar (Mason sophomore): It’s the first show I’ve worked in with a different ending every night. I’ve never seen so much improvisational comedy in a musical before. It adds a very nice kind of energy to the whole show that…

Alexandra Bunger-Pool (Mason junior): Costume fittings. Turns out, man shirts button on the wrong side.

 Dylan Toms and Alexandra Bunger-Pool. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.
Dylan Toms and Alexandra Bunger-Pool. Photo by Michelle Stella Riordan/Photography by Exposure.

Why should audiences come see The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Dylan Toms (Mason freshman): “Get ready to have the time of your life!” It is a very interactive show and the audience plays one of the most important roles, they pick the ending! So bring your thinking caps and your phones because this show is going to be a bloody good time!

Hayley Dandreaux: Anyone could enjoy this show, and it is nothing you have ever seen before. From incredibly talented performers, but you (the audience) have all the power when it comes to the ending.

Kyle Imperatore: It’s a barrel of fun, light, British humor, with the unique opportunity for the audience to have a direct interaction with the cast members and with the outcome of the show. And who doesn’t like a good murder mystery during the Halloween season?

Lawrence Hailes (Mason senior): would tell them get ready to experience a show like none other. This particular style of show isn’t done very frequently and I think the audience will love it for that reason.

Sara Martin (Mason junior): It’s going to be awesome..The show is going to be so funny and all the audience participation is a very unique aspect of this show. All of the different endings for murderer …come out to see how many different ways it can end!

Daniel DeVera: Come have a great time filled with drama, laughs, and a created your own mystery. Also what other opportunities do you have to be part of a production and get to skip all the rehearsals.

Justin Sumblin: It’s got music, it’s got dancing, it’s got love, lust, hate. It’s even got MURDER. And it’s hilarious. You don’t want to miss out on the fun, especially when you can change the show, yourself.


The Mystery of Edwin Drood plays from October 24-26, 2014 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on October 24, 2014 – October 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm, October 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm, and on October 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm and, then moves to the Hylton Performing Arts Center where it plays on October 31, 2014 and November 1, 2014 at 2 pm and 8 pm.

Purchase tickets online for the Center for the Arts performances on October 24, 2014 – October 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm, October 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm, and on October 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm.

Purchase tickets online for the Hylton Performing Arts Center performances on October 31, 2014  and November 1, 2014 at 2 pm and 8 pm.

Ticket prices are: $25 for Adults and $15 for Alumni, Students, faculty, staff, seniors, and groups.


Synopsis of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Meet the characters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.


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