There are many reasons to be merry and bright this time of year, and not least of them is the wealth of dramatic talent currently on display in the Palm Beaches. This month, local theatergoers have two new productions to add to their wish list: the unconventional musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through December 19 and the world premiere of Ordinary Americans, a drama inspired by true events, currently onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through January 5.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (pronounced “drooooooooooooooood”) is a wonderfully weird musical-within-a-musical by Rupert Holmes. The jumping-off point is Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel of the same name. The setting is London’s Music Hall Royale in the year 1895, and a merry band of thespians—many of whom mingle with the audience prior to the show—is preparing to mount the novel-turned-musical, with the goal of crowdsourcing an answer to the titular query of just what happened to poor Edwin Drood.
What you’re left with is a romping and irreverent commentary on the world of live theater and the joys of the stage. This ethos is prevalent in how the characters interact with one another as well as in the musical numbers. Richard B. Watson’s chairman, for example, acts as the de facto master of ceremonies, introducing actors, tying up loose ends, and illuminating the behind-the-scenes world of the Music Hall Royale. One reliable fixture, regardless of the show, is Phillip Bax (played by Andrew Sellon) who inhabits minor characters but gets his time to shine in “Never the Luck,” a building “I want” song that, as with most of the numbers, eventually calls upon the entire cast to join in.
Over in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Dramaworks is offering a different type of behind-the-scenes show, one inspired by the true story of a beloved 1950s sitcom. William Hayes, producing artistic director at Dramaworks, commissioned Joseph McDonough to pen the play after South Florida actress Elizabeth Dimon expressed interest in playing the role of Gertrude Berg, a larger-than-life entertainer who starred in, wrote, and produced The Goldbergs, her own radio and television show depicting Jewish life in America in the mid-twentieth century.
The resulting play, Ordinary Americans, tackles the issues Berg and her co-star, Philip Loeb, faced as they attempted to save their show and friendship amid anti-Semitism and accusations of un-American activity. At the height of McCarthyism, Loeb was blacklisted. Berg—who was not only a groundbreaking figure in the industry but also a visible example of Jewish motherhood at a time when few existed—then had to decide whether to yield to network and sponsor pressure to replace Loeb or lose her show.
Dimon as Gertrude Berg and David Kwiat as Philip Loeb bear the weight of this production and excel at inhabiting these real-life figures. Faced with the promise of cancelation, Berg advocates for her onscreen husband—and Dimon presents a doggedness rooted in Berg’s genuine affection for Loeb. This is clearly a role Dimon was born to play, and Kwiat is more than a worthy counterpart. He anchors the entire show, acting as the crux of a dramatic crescendo that leads to the play’s hard-hitting denouement.