The ArtsCenter and PlayMakers Repertory Company have combined forces to bring us this season’s Summer Youth Conservatory. The students who participate in this conservatory study under theater professionals for about a month before beginning the one show they will produce by the end of their time there. This year’s production is a mammoth undertaking requiring a huge, multilevel set; a spirited orchestra; and a full cast that numbers thirty-five! Rupert Holmes’ Drood: The Mystery of Edwin Drood takes place in a turn of the century music hall with the rather regal name of Music Hall Royale, and every character is a music hall entertainer. These “characters” then become the characters of the mystery they are presenting this evening: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the ending of which, we have been told, was left undone due to Mr. Charles Dickens’ untimely death.

Much merriment is created as the employees of the Music Hall interact with the audience during the pre-show, which runs about 25 minutes. Jugglers, dancers, magicians and acrobats take turns keeping us occupied until, precisely at 8 p.m., the Chairman, Mr. William Cartwright (Emma DeWitt) calls the proceedings to order and becomes our emcee for the evening.

What comes next is a surprisingly deft and swiftly-executed account of one of Charles Dicken’s greatest mysteries, precisely because it was never revealed by the author what happened to Drood or who killed him — or even, if he was murdered at all!. This cast, in one of the largest and most well-oiled productions I have witnessed, forms an ensemble that keeps the action moving and us on the edge of our seats — as well as supremely entertained — for a full three hours.

Edwin Drood is performed by a male impersonator — a woman playing a man — named Alice Nutting (Isabelle DeWitt). His uncle, the villain of the piece, is named John Jasper and is performed by Clive Paget (Joshua Collier). Jasper is in love with his nephew’s fiancée, the lovely Rosa Bud, played by Dierdre Peregrine (Sarah Housmann). These principal characters interact with a variety of dancers, minor characters, and citizenry while performing, usually with the entire company, music that is extremely complex. This music ranges from duets that rival opera to sextets over dinner, full choruses of company numbers, and a score that is mind-numbing, performed adroitly by a mere four musicians: Will Myers, violin, Leah Gibson, cello, Behm Williams, drums, and Mark Lewis, piano.*

It is heart-warming to see such a performance, where a youthful cast takes on a brutal production and performs it with verve and energy. Every character onstage, from the smallest to the greatest, was in-character, energetic, enthusiastic, and performed with the greatest skill they could muster. This highly energetic production earned itself a full standing ovation, with whistles and cheers into the bargain.

The cast takes on a huge burden in that we, as audience members, choose the ending we wish to see — who killed Edwin, and who seeks to avenge him — which means they must know, and be able to perform on a moment’s notice, the ending the audience chooses. In such a monumental production, to be able to handle one ending is quite enough. But the play has a total of seven different endings, each one depending on which villain we as audience members choose. This production, with its huge cast, staggering score, multiple endings, and massively large set — including opera boxes stage left and right — make this show one that a fully professional company would be cautious to take on. That the conservatory has done so and produced it with such boundless energy and magical enthusiasm is nothing short of a monumental success story.

Choreographer Erin Dangler weaves dance and movement throughout the show, keeping each actor on the go as players of this music hall. Conservatory students Jackie Stewart, Mitchell Morris, Alice Harris, and Rochelle Scott run lights and sound. This show needs a full two pages of artistic staff just to get the show up and running, and these fine young actors take that base and build upon it until it is a show any theater-goer would truly enjoy.

Stage Manager Sarah Smiley must keep tabs on and orchestrate this show from behind the scenes, and she keeps it running smoothly. Director Tom Quaintance has pulled together a mammoth score, monster production, and gigantic cast and crew to present a dazzling and exuberant show that is fun for all ages, from six to ninety-six.

Drood continues through July 25. For details, see our calendar.

*Edited/corrected 8/4/10 – Mr. Lewis also served as music director.