Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Several years ago the national touring company of Gentleman's Guide came to Minneapolis, presenting an altogether enjoyable staging of the Broadway original. The venerable Old Log Theatre has the honor of being the first local theater company to mount their own version of this farcical show. Hats off to Old Log, for they deliver every shard of the hilarity, the satiric wit, and the musical brio of a show that is that rare item, both truly a musical and truly a comedy.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is based on the novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal" by Roy Horniman, which also inspired the 1949 English film Kind Hearts and Coronets. The central character is an impoverished young man whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic British family because she married "for love," and beneath what her forebears declared to be their station. To right the injustice done to him, Monty resorts to murder to climb up the branches of the family tree he had been denied.
An interesting note, in Horniman's novel the folly of the mother of the title character, Israel Horn, was to marry a Jew. In the 1949 movie director Robert Hamer changed the lead character's name to Louis Mazzini and made his father Italian. Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the book for the musical changed his nationality again, re-christening him as Montague "Monty" Navarro, and his father a Castilian. Clearly, the social-political context of each iteration of the story dictated which ethnic group can be mocked, which may be why Monty's father is called Castilian and not Spanishthe former sounding more remote from contemporary strictures.
The murders of the D'Ysquith heirs are committed in ingenious fashion, each victim representing a different specimen of the upper-class: a smug playboy, a dithering clergyman, a philanthropist whose giving is a form of vanity, a talent-less stage diva, a foppish gardening enthusiast, and so on. This allows numerous opportunities for physical comedy and wordplay, both of which are abundantly present. The plot is also complicated by conflicting love interests. At the start, empty-pocketed Monty is hopelessly smitten by Sibella Hallward, who enjoys toying with Monty but has her sights set on a well-off suitor. When Monty asks Sibella if she ever considered marrying for love she recoils, protesting "Now you're being cruel!" In the course of his murderous path through the D'Ysquith family, Monty meets lovely and sensitive Phoebe D'Ysquith, who responds to his tender comfort as she mourns a deceased relativenever guessing, of course, who the murderer isby falling in love with Monty.
Freedman's bookwhich deservedly scored a Tony Award of its ownis awash with humor, and cleverly constructed so that even when we can more or less guess the direction in which things are going, there are still constant surprises, right up to the very end. Of course, this kind of affair has no character development, other than Monty's descent from poor but earnest and virtuous young man to self-serving, obsessed murdered: in that way perhaps like Sweeney Todd, though much funnier.
Freedman collaborated with composer Stephen Lutvak on the lyrics, which are as witty as the book. How can anyone not be tickled when an assemblage of mourners wondering why so many of the D'Ysquith's are dying, sing "Suddenly they're congregating underneath the sod!" or Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith's treatise on the absurdity of being poor, "I Don't Understand the Poor." Lutvak's music is in an English music hall veinthe year is 1909bringing to mind The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is not at all bad company. Musical styles range from patter-like to romantic to drinking songs to the requisite anthem, the stirring "The Last One You'd Expect." It is not a score containing songs for the ages, but it fits the show like a custom-tailored glove.
Eric Morris directs Gentleman's Guide with a full awareness that the only aim here is to entertain. This show is not meant to enlighten, to probe, or to provoke. It is meant to prompt laughter and evoke delight, which it does continuously, earning an A in its class. There is only modest choreography, the musical staging by Joey Miller primarily consisting of group formations, but it suits the material and the space well.
The concept of casting the aristocratic victims, male and female, with the same actor offers a plum comedic role. David Beukema takes on the challenge at Old Log and runs away with it, drawing hearty laughs every inch of the way. Among the eight D'Ysquiths, his ham-baked take on effete, garden-loving Henry, who insists to Monty that "It's Better with a Man," and the fearsome Lord Adalbert, who reveals his greatest passion in "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun," particularly stand out. Monty is played by Max Wojtanowicz, whose beautiful voice is well known to Twin City theatergoers, and whose comedic gifts are put to splendid effect. Monty's competing desires for Phoebe and Sibella give Wojtanowicz the opportunity to shine, and his self-effacing delivery of "Foolish to Think" is surprisingly moving.
Elizabeth Hawkinson plays Phoebe, her lustrous soprano giving sparkle to everything she sings, in particular the jewel-like "Inside Out." She also delivers the comedic thrust of the role, one which is more subtle, in keeping with her character's nature. Emily Scinto is delightful as Sibella, conveying the lust and craftiness of a young woman looking out for herself, singing with great flourish in "I Don't Know What I'd Do" while expressing unbridled egotism. She matches Hawkinson perfectly in their duet "That Horrible Woman," and Scinto, Hawkinson, and Wojtanowicz make the five-minute "I've Decided to Marry You" into a comic gem, combining bright lyrics, flawless staging, and perfectly attuned performances.
The ensemble takes on a variety of the smaller roles throughout Gentleman's Guide, and all do excellent work. One would have expected Deidre Cochran, as Miss Shingle, the old family friend who reveals Monty's birthright to him, to seem more aged, but that is a small matter. Suzie Juul gets comic mileage out of her shrewish portrayal of Lady Eugenia. A small matter deserving mention: ensemble member Luke Davidson, near the show's end, assumes the role of Chief Inspector Pinckney. It is a small part, but Davidson invests it with total dedicationraising eyebrows and curling his lips responsively as other characters speak. That is the essence of the phrase "there are no small parts, only small actors." Davidson shows that he is no small actor.
The scenic, lighting, and sound design all serve the production well. Samantha Fromm Haddow has come up with a colorful array of Edwardian apparel, high styled for the D'Ysquiths and more pedestrian for other characters, with Paul Bigot coming through with appropriate period wig and hair design. Music director Bradley Beahen leads an orchestra of five musicians who play the score with brio, sounding fuller than one would expect from so small an ensemble.
Since the touring company only played in Minneapolis for a week and, even with bragging rights of a Tony win, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder did not reach tourist masses the way the bigger shows of its season did, Old Log has done Twin City audiences a true service. They have from now through mid-February to catch up on this delightful entertainment, being given a smashing production featuring four stellar performances.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murdercontinues through February 15, 2020 at Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville Street, Excelsior, MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $40.00, Student rush tickets evening of performance, in person, $20.00 with valid IDs. Wednesday 1:30 PM matinees are general admission. For tickets call 952-474-5951 or go to www.oldlog.com.
Music: Steven Lutvak; Lyrics: Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak; Book: Robert L. Freedman, inspired by the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman; Director: Eric Morris; Music Director: Bradley Beahen; Choreographer/Musical Staging: Joey Miller; Scenic and Lighting Designer: Erik Paulson; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Sound Design: Nick Mrozek; Hair, Makeup & Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Stage Manager: Sam Diekman.
Cast: David Beukema (Asquith Jr./Lord Adalbert/Reverend Lord Ezekial/Lord Asquith Sr./Henry/Lady Hyacinth/Major Lord Bartholomew/Lady Salome), Sharayah Lynn Bunce (Miss Barley/ensemble), Deidre Cochran (Miss Shingle/ensemble), Luke Davidson (Chief Inspector Pinckney/ensemble), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Phoebe D'Ysquith), Suzie Juul (Lady Eugenia/ensemble), Caleb Michael (Magistrate/ ensemble), Emily Scinto (Sibella Hallward), Gabriel Sell (Tom Copley/Guard/ensemble), Max Wojtanowicz (Monty Navarro).