Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's reviews of Culture Clash (Still) in America, Gloria and Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border
42nd Street Moon, with a charming production of Once last season and their 2018 run of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, have shown they, too, are getting better and better at the very difficult task of creating theatrical artespecially without the bigger budgets the larger companies have to work with. On Saturday night, the Gateway Theater was packed to the rafters for the opening night of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, a very sillybut eminently entertaining"tale of revenge and retribution." With a solid cast, clever set, gorgeous costumes, lovely lighting, and taut direction (by Daren A.C. Carollo), 42nd Street Moon's latest is one of their very best. With its over-the-top characters and ridiculous plot, it has a little of the spirit of an English panto, those typically British Christmastime shows that blend commedia dell'arte, drag, clowning and funny songs, and a little of the spirit of penny dreadfuls, with their usually bloody subject matter.
The story of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak) is rather simple. Montague "Monty" Navarro (Kevin Singer) is a young man living in London in 1909. Well, in prison actually, as he has been arrested for murder and is putting the finishing touches on his memoir while awaiting execution. Flash back to 1907: Monty's mother has passed and he learns he's not simple Monty Navarro, but Montgomery D'Ysquith Navarro, in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. Well, ninth in line. You see, Monty's mother, a D'Ysquith, had marriedagainst the family's wishesa Castilian man, and been cut off as a result. When Monty strives to reconnect with his richer relations, they spurn him cruelly. Through an accident (one Monty could have prevented), one of the D'Ysquiths ahead of him in line dies, and Monty is now eighth in line for the earldom. This inspires Monty to knock off the other seven pretenders in order to become the Earl of Highhurst and win the hand of his beloved Sibella (Christine Capsuto-Shulman), who had turned down his proposal due to Monty's poverty.
Over the course of two acts, with several delightful songs ("I Don't Understand the Poor," "It's Better With a Man," "Poison in My Pocket," among others), Monty endeavors to achieve his goal through some rather obscure methods of murder. One by one his victims fall and he inches closer to the earldom and Sibella's love.
Playing virtually every member of the D'Ysquith family, Matt Hammons easily has the toughest job of the night. I'd pay to see time-lapse footage of him backstage as he gets into and out of the costumes, wigs, false mustaches, and false sideburns required to play the Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith, Henry D'Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith, Lord Asquith D'Ysquith Sr., Lord Asquith D'Ysquith Jr., Lady Salome D'Ysquith Pumphrey, Major Lord Bartholomew D'Ysquith, and Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith. I'm surprised he had the energy to stand for the curtain call. He and Singer have great chemistry together, with Singer playing the charming (and mildly conniving) social climber, and Hammons as a variety of foils to his ambition. Attention should also be paid to Teressa Foss who, as Miss Shingle, finds a way to get her mouth into geometric shapes that seem impossible. How does she manage a trapezoid, parallelogram, and a hexagon while belting out "You're a D'Ysquith"?
The set (by Mark Mendelson and dramatically lit by Claudio Andres Silva Restrepo) is a marvel of flexibility: doors and more doors that serve various purposesand are put to their best use in the scene where Monty attempts to keep his love Sibella and his cousin (and suitor) Phoebe D'Ysquith separate when both drop in at his flat at the same time. Rebecca Valentino's costumes are appropriately Edwardian and opulent, and it all comes together into a glorious two hours of implausible fun.
If you've never gone to a 42nd Street Moon show, this would be a wonderful introduction. For my part, it whets my appetite for what they might be able to do with one of my favorite shows, The Pajama Game, which is the next production this season. After all, they just keep getting better and better.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs through March 15, 2020 at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 6:00 p.m., with matinees Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $31-$72. For tickets and information, please visit 42ndStreetMoon.org, or call 415-255-8207.