Photo by Joan Marcus
The touring cast of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
FORT LAUDERDALE — A word of caution: Do not heed the warning that “you’d best depart” the theater before the musical with an eyebrow-raising, attention-grabbing title begins.
Those who are scared off will miss the intriguing murderous mayhem that makes A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder so much fun.
The show marries the deadly act of murder with the sweetness of the killer. The result is a madcap, irresistible musical infused with a droll wit.
The multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is in the midst of an impressive non-equity national touring production. It remains in Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts through Jan. 21.
The show, which won a Best Musical Tony award, might as well carry the following title: An Actor’s Guide on How to Seamlessly Slip in and out of Diverse Characters, Fully Inhabit Each and Not Slip Up in the Least.
Such a title certainly would’ve been appropriate during the Broadway run, when actor Jefferson Mays proved chameleonic. He played nearly 10 eccentric yet diverse characters and made you believe you were seeing a different person each time. Mays won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his work.
In the current touring production, James Taylor Odom makes each of the characters his own, while seemingly effortlessly stepping in and out of the skin of each. It’s a tour-de-force performance that, by itself, warrants a trip to one of the venues where the production will run.
You’d best not depart, but settle back – or forward—in your seat, because this show will keep you on the edge of it. You rarely come across a show that’s a mixture of The Addams Family-like kookiness, Monty Python-like wackiness and Noel Coward-like wit. Witty phrases, tuneful songs, British-style farce, and a loveable murderer make this Guide essential viewing.
The technical elements coalesce to create a unified, elegant style befitting the aristocratic D’Ysquith family in early 1900s London.
Linda Cho’s sumptuous, period costumes, scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s fancy depiction of locales, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg’s at-times dark, romantic lighting all contribute to the unified style.
The production is directed and choreographed with comic energy, pace and physicality by Peggy Hickey (Darko Tresnjak originally directed the show on Broadway).
At the beginning, we’re introduced to Monty Navarro. He’s a penniless clerk shocked to learn his aristocratic roots. Moreover, he’s ninth in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst, controlled by the clan. They are the wealthy D’Ysquith banking family.
Armed with this knowledge, our sweet, innocent Navarro goes on a killing spree. His goal is to eliminate relatives ahead of him in line for the Earldom.
There’s humor in that Monty is seemingly the least likely person to hurt someone, much less kill. He is charming, romantic, charismatic and ambitious. Still, he seems like the type of person you’d enjoy having over for a biscuit and tea. Certainly, you’d trust him with your child.
Yet there he is, without any evil intent etched into his face, dispatching those ahead of him in line for the coveted royal title.
The relatives range from a dithering old priest to a country squire to the current Earl of Highurst. The latter is a fiercely combative, proud, wealthy stiff with a penchant for shouting. He and his wife can’t stand each other. They scream at each other, adding to the humor.
There’s a palpable sense of drama and urgency as the ambitious Navaro seeks the Earldom. This sense of urgency is reinforced by the rapidly rising and descending ruffled curtains of Dodge’s visually-striking, period-reinforcing Victorian Toy Theatre. The small, model-like stage within the larger proscenium stage, reinforces the playfulness of the show.
One of most most hilarious scenes involves country squire Henry D’Ysquith and Navarro.
Henry Informs Monty that an excess of bee-stings can kill someone. Our lovable, charming murderer, played with charisma, purity, charm and eager ambition by Blake Price, obtains a bottle of lavender perfume, to which bees are extraordinarily attracted.
At the D’Ysquith country estate, Monty douses Henry’s bee-kepping clothes with the lavender. Eventually, Monty turns away and begins to dance elegantly with Henry’s sister, Phoebe D’Ysquith (an earnest, romantic Erin McIntyre). Both are seemingly blissfully unaware of what’s occurring behind them. Henry is lying upside down on a hammock. Bees are swarming around him and stinging him to death, as he’s in convincing, full panic mode.
Credit must go to projection designer Aaron Rhyne. His breathtaking, inventive and diverse backdrops create vivid, authentic-looking atmospheres. They include a pristine countryside with a clear sky, dotted with white clouds that seemingly move. Another backdrop makes us feel like we’re on top of a church, which is tilted to the side. It appears as though Monty and the unsteady priest, The Rev. Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith are precariously standing on top on a ledge. One push, it seems, and either falls many feet to their death.
Love, some of it tender, some humorous, is in the air in this show. Navarro tries to balance his love interests – his mistress, Sibella (a sexy, commanding Briana Ganstweg during the reviewed performance) and cousin Phoebe. During one scene, a hilarious romantic tug-of-war takes place. Monty’s in the middle of the two woman, during the farcical scene involving, of course, slamming doors.
Humor is also aplenty in the tuneful, witty score. The opening song is “A Warning to the Audience.” Actors clad in black stare straight at us and sing in a foreboding, collective voice. Their faces betray a severe expression and their posture is stiff. Their sound and appearance might bring to mind The Addams Family characters or opening chorus members of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. They warn us:
For those of you of weaker constitution
For those of you who may be faint of heart
This is a tale of revenge and retribution
So if you’re smart
Before we start
You’d best depart
You’d best depart
The cast members, still clad in black, against a backdrop of a cemetery, also sing one of the show’s more clever numbers, “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?”
Why are all the D’Ysquiths dying?
What grisly sort of plague is going round?
It seems with every day
A D’Ysquith slips away
And here we are assembled putting another one in the ground
It’s frankly all been rather mystifying
Do forgive me if I scoff:
But is it not a trifle odd
How they’ve all gone off to God
Suddenly they’re congregating underneath the sod
I happened to notice there wasn’t a lot of crying
I even heard a snigger from the back
Oh, it really is a shame
How they start to feel the same
How many are there left to bury after what’s-his-name?
The musical, based on a novel by Roy Horniman, is largely escapist theater. However, one of the songs, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” may uncomfortably remind some of today’s political environment.
There’s plenty of thought-provoking theater in South Florida. Therefore, it’s a nice change of pace to sit back, laugh and admire deft comedic timing and the versatility of talented actors.
If laughing at murder calms our nerves, even if for a couple hours, it’s an added bonus.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through Jan. 21 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale. For other tour stops, tickets and show times, including show information in Ft. Lauderdale, visit https://gentlemansguideontour.com.