Theatre: Jim Norton’s Success makes Drood Mysteriously Good

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How It’s New York: The show runs at The Roundabout, which was once Studio 54, so, very New York indeed!
How It’s Irish: Jim Norton is one of the best Irish actors out there.

A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Nov. 13.

“You know the Irish, they’re always singing and dancing.” — Jim Norton. 

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a sugarplum of a show, with Norton as the Music Hall actor-manager like a secular Santa, providing treats..

There’s a moment in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which opened November 13 at the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54, where the Chairman, played by Jim Norton, stands in a box and pours snow down on the stage.

He looks bored.
He looks crabby. It’s hilarious.
It’s genius.

It was Norton’s idea.

Norton, a Dubliner, is best known in New York for knocking great Irish roles out of the park, particularly the Tony-Award winning role of the blind Edward Harkin in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer in 2008 (I reviewed that for Celtic Cafe then) and the title role of Finian McLonergan in Finian’s Rainbow in 2009- 2010.
We interviewed him for this newspaper then, and he told us then, among other things, that his grandmother told him that acting is what “the fairies leave in the cradle.”

In Rupert Holmes’ brilliant adaptation of Charles Dickens’ unfinished 1870 novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Norton plays an English actor-manager who runs a rag-tag Music Hall company.
The conceit of the show is that all of the cast are playing both characters in the story, and the music hall actors who play them.

Because Dickens died while writing the story of a young man who vanishes wearing his evil Uncle Jasper’s cloak, which is found covered with blood, we can’t be sure whom Dickens intended for the guilty party, or even if young Edwin is dead. The audience vote in the middle of Act Two for the character they think is the likeliest person wearing the bad fake wig as “Detective Datchery,” and for the killer.
Is it evil Uncle Jasper, played by Will Chase? Is it hotheaded Neville Landless, played by Andy Karl? Edwin’s former fiancée Rosa Bud, played by Betsy Wolfe (yep, Rosebud. Dickens was not subtle about names)? Was it Princess Puffer, the proprietess of an opium den, played with wry charm by Chita Rivera?

Before we get to that point though, it turns out that one of the actors in the cast is drunk.
The Chairman, as he is known, is called on to play the role of the mayor of Cloisterham, too.
“I’m a man of many parts,” Norton said by telephone last week, after a preview of the show. “Most of them missing,” he added with a laugh. 

 The opportunity to play an English role in the very English format of Music Hall which, said Norton, lives on in the Pantomime which is very popular in Ireland today (and which New Yorkers will have a chance to see in December, thanks to Dick Whittington: A Panto for NYC, at Dixon Place on December 21, 22, 28 and 29), was part of the appeal of doing the role.

The actors want your vote. (@Joan marcus

That, and being in another Broadway musical. It’s only Norton’s second-Finian was his first. From the way Norton hoofs it up and belts it out you’d never know.
You know the Irish, they’re always singing and dancing,” Norton said.
He said that it was only when he heard that Warren Carlyle, the director/choreographer of Finian, would be the choreographer that he felt confident he could do it. But, “when I’m playing a character who can sing, I can sing. I can move in a way I wouldn’t in real life.”

Norton even sells the hoary old jokes the Chairman gives us, such as “Her parents were in iron and steel. The mother irons, the father steals.” And they all work.
“He’s aware of the fact that the jokes are not great, but he still offers them up,” Norton says.

Entering the Roundabout’s Studio Theatre on 54th Street feels like entering a real Victorian theatre: the ushers are in costume, with bowler hats. There are Christmas wreaths hanging. Red velvet is everywhere.
The cast come out and teach the audience to drone “the mystery of Edwin Drooooooooooood” whenever the words come up, and coax the audience to “vote” for them.

Music Hall flourished in the Victorian age, but, like so many things in theatre, it didn’t just vanish.
English playwright John Osborne celebrated it in his 1957 play The Entertainer, with Laurence Olivier playing the role of Archie Rice, a middle-aged performer hanging on to what was then an art form on its last gasps. Norton’s comic timing and little tweaks, like the way he kicks a leg in and out in a funny patter song with “Both Sides of the Coin,” feel authentic – because they are.
“Growing up in Dublin, there was a huge amount of Music Hall,” Norton said. “What they called Variety. At the Queen’s Theatre, there was a movie and a stage show.”

Norton also worked with some of the actors from that era as a child actor himself, he said.

In Ireland, “It was a working man’s entertainment, and usually took place in a pub. Performers had one act, they were either a comedian or a juggler or a dancer. The Chairman or MC would introduce them. A lot of drink was taken, and it was very bawdy, very fun.”
The form came to America as vaudeville, and goes back even further, as the Italian 17th Century traveling format Commedia dell’arte, said Norton. “It’s always the first performance. Every night is the premiere. If things go wrong, I think audiences like to see that.”

Mayor Sapsea, Norton said, was based on a performer he had read about named Dan Leno (1860 – 1904). “He was a little tiny man who wore huge shoes.”
When Norton quick-changes into the mayor and back, often in front of our eyes, often as fast as putting a hat on his head and taking it off again, he visibly grows shorter. His eyes grow rounder. And bluer.
Norton has also listened to recordings of actors of that era, and picked up tips from the ones he met. “Milo O’Shea is like a past master of mime and comedy,” Norton said.
When Norton did a show with O’Shea as a young man, he picked up tips every night.
An older actor he knew called Ian Priestly Mitchell, who was in his 80s when Norton was 12, taught him to “always have a pair of well-polished shoes,” Norton said doing a cultured and affected voice.
Norton’s own voice is deep, rich and sonorous, so when he goes into the mayor’s squeaky, timid voice that alone gets a laugh.

Along with the grumpy snowflake tossing, the Chairman makes the sound of a tomb door squeaking in a graveyard by rubbing a balloon onstage. “The Victorian theatre invented those, the thunder sheet and the wind machine,” Norton said. And Victorian actors had to be hams, he pointed out, because they played in limelight, without microphones to houses of thousands. They had to gesture broadly, which is why it’s called “show business”: show me, Norton explained.

Casting someone as vital and funny as Norton is a must for this character, originally played by George Rose in 1986, because the Chairman is on in every scene, either introducing what happens, instructing the audience what’s going on, or watching from the wings. “I never get to my dressing room,” said Norton. Fortunately that’s fine for him: he loves to watch the cast, whom he calls “amazing,” sing and dance – and so do the crew.
“When we’re onstage dancing and singing, we look into the wings and see the stagehands singing and sometimes dancing too. That joie de vivre extends backstage.”

But what about that vote. Is it really a vote? Surely, it’s rigged, just a little? Yes, we can see them counting our hands in sections, but with all those combinations of possibilities, how can they really be unsure of what they’re going to play? Well, Norton says, they are. “We never know until the last minute. The person playing the murderer does not know until they’re told.” 

At the performance I saw, Chita Rivera’s Princess Pluffer is matched up romantically with the Young Deputy, who looks about 12 played by Nicholas Barasch, at the end. That combination was new, Norton asserts.
There’s always a line of people at the theatre afterwards, says Norton, and some people return several times to see the different combinations.

But what does Norton think would have happened? Yes, he’s read the Dickens, though Holmes, who wrote, orchestrated and composed the show, warns the director in notes to keep actors away from it because it provides no answers.
“My feeling is that Edwin Drood hadn’t been killed. Dickens was very caring. He would have tried to find a happy ending.” It’s a littled Midsomer Murders-y, I point out, and Norton laughs and says he’s done one of those – as have most of the actors he knows.

He has not, yet, done Law & Order, the usual show for every New York actor, and since only SVU is left, he’d likely have to play a sex criminal.
“There was a time when I was the go-to person to play a psychopath,” Norton says. Asked if he’s happy that phase is over, he replies, “It may not be.”

The Chairman is not a psychopath. But he is a little mad. Filled with the glorious madness of putting on a show against the odds, and a charm that carries well over the edge of the proscenium.
Such delightful madness ought to be tied up with a red ribbon and a bow.
And at Roundabout, it is.

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