CHAMPAIGN — Most people think "dark and moody" when they hear Charles Dickens.
But "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" musical based on a Dickens unfinished mystery is anything but.
"It's light and effervescent and fun," said actor Michael Steen, who portrays the lead character of Mr. Clive Paget and John Jasper in "The Solve-It-Yourself Musical!" that runs through May 5 at the Parkland College Theatre.
Besides being effervescent, the musical is the most ambitious production mounted by Parkland since "Sunday in the Park with George" during its 2000-01 season, according to Dallas Street, who directs "Edwin Drood."
"It's just a complicated piece," he said before rehearsal Monday night. "It has 426 variations in the way the show can play out. The audience votes on the ending."
The votes come about midway trough the second act. The audience decides whodunit, the true identity of one character, and what character will become the love object of the lead female character Miss Deidre Peregrine/Rosa Bud, played by Marah Sotelo.
Keeping the action moving and the audience participating is Grant Morenz as the music hall emcee, or Chairman, or William Cartwright. He also plays Mayor Sapsea in the play within the play.
The overall musical is set in London's Music Hall Royale in 1895, with the play within a play set a couple of decades earlier.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is based on Dickens' unfinished, final novel of the same title. He had written the first six chapters before he died in 1870. The ending he had planned remains unknown but has been debated for decades.
Composer Rupert Holmes, best known for his No. 1 pop hit "Escape (The Pia Colada Song)" from 1979-80, wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical, which is now being revived on Broadway.
In his New York Times review published in November, Charles McGrath wrote that "Dickens, a lifelong ham, would have loved Rupert Holmes' 'Mystery of Edwin Drood.'
"Set in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham, 'Drood' is mainly the story of an opium-addicted choirmaster, John Jasper, secretly in love with Rosa Bud, the fiance of his nephew, Edwin Drood, who disappears on Christmas Eve, under suspicious circumstances, shortly before the book breaks off. There is some dark, psychosexual atmosphere and a couple of nice comic moments, but by Dickens' usual standards the book feels thin and underimagined.
"That has not kept it from being an object of fascination. Almost from the moment the book was published it became a literary parlor game to solve its mystery, or three mysteries, really: Is Drood truly dead, and if so, who killed him? And who is the strange character Datchery, who turns up late in the tale, apparently in disguise?"
Street described some of the music for "Edwin Drood" as ravishing, and cast members used similar adjectives to describe the Victorian costumes ("sumptuous") and other aspects of the production.
"It's freaking fun," Steen said. "It's a really unusual, intricate and difficult show. It's so over the top yet beautiful."
Julia Megan Sullivan plays Miss Angela Prysock and in the play within a play, The Princess Puffer, who runs an opium den. Like other cast members, Sullivan said she's having fun and hopes the audience will, too.
She hope theater-goers will laugh and cheer as well as boo the villain, as they would have done in a Victorian music hall. In addition to having the audience vote in the second half, cast members will interact with audiences before the play begins. But the interaction is never forced.
"We don't drag anybody up on stage," Street said.
Said Sullivan: "I think it's going to be an experience for the audience, especially for people who love theater, musicals and old-time music halls."
Parkland Theatre warns that the story contains mild adult themes. Parents with concerns may email firstname.lastname@example.org for details before deciding whether to bring the kids.
If you go
What: Parkland College Theatre presents "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," with book, music and lyrics written by Rupert Holmes; directed by Dallas Street
When: Continues at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and May 2-3; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. May 4; 3 p.m. May 5
Where: Parkland Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C
Tickets: $14 for adults; $12 for students and senior citizens 55 and older; $8 for youths 12 and younger; $10 each for groups of 15 or more (half-price night is May 2)
Reservations: http://www.parkland.edu/theatre; 351-2528.