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Because Charles Dickens was kept from finishing his last novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," it is far more mysterious than the title promises. We don't know who killed Drood or even if Drood was killed. The musical by Rupert Holmes, book, music and lyrics, picks up on this and uses it as a gimmick. The Summerfare Musical Theatre performance of the piece is heavy with gimmick.

Holmes has transplanted Dickens' mystery into an 1892 music hall to allow for a show within a show. The embracing show involves a demerited cast of music hall entertainers doing their level best to get our attention while at the same time they direct a particle of their own attention to performing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," music, dance bits added.

This, of course, leads to a style of performance malodorous with camp. Which is to say insincerity raised to an art form. The music hall entertainers go to great lengths to signal us that in their roles they don't really mean it. They are not to be taken seriously.

The main structural gimmick enrolls us to figure an ending to the play. We've come to a point where Drood has disappeared, perhaps been offed by the jealous Jasper, by his own fiancee Rosa Bud, by a hot-blooded Ceylonese, or the nosy pastor, or almost anybody. The question must be who.

You'll find yourself split, like our current presidential polls. Do you vote for the story or the characters behind the story?

The real-life actors behind the roles-within-roles are in general too callow for so much double-dealing and comic insincerity. It's apparent they are working hard at it; it isn't deeply ingrained in their experience. It isn't half as fun as it perhaps ought to be. A little of this can go a long way as it is, and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" begs more indulgence than it earns.

There are notable exceptions, chief among them Brian Riggs. Riggs is the music hall company's Clive Paget and the musical's John Jasper. His role as a good guy gone bad, a frequenter of opium dens, who paws Julie A. Burdick's Rosa Bud with inflamed eyes, makes him the obvious choice for villain. He has the style down pat, and sings very well.

Elements of the show are good. The set, for instance, consists of movable two-dimensional drawings of the town, and this fits neatly with the idea of two-dimensional characters. Amy Brown's musical accompaniment on keyboard, with percussionist Nick Corallo, is fine.

You may find yourself wishing there were less audience buttering up by company manager William Cartwright (Robert Insana), but that's the way the play behind the musical goes. It's not them -- it's the material. They have to play down to it.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Rating: * * * Musical mystery-comedy by Rupert Holmes based on Charles Dickens' incomplete last novel.
Directed by Randall Kramer, featuring, among others, Lisa Ann Ludwig, Brian Riggs, Robert Insana, Tom Owen, Doug Weyand, Julie Scott-Dalfonso, Derek Roland.
Performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays' 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 1. Summerfare Theater, at Daemen College, 4380 Main St., Amherst (839-8540).

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