REVIEW: ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Millman-Dwyer

My God, Music Mountain, this was good!

I saw “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” on Broadway a few days before it closed on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. I was amused by it, but not blown over. It had played for a couple of years, having opened in October 2013.

One of the unusual aspects of the show was that it is a tour de force for one actor, who plays nine different roles. Jefferson Mays is a fearless actor, who can change character in less than heartbeat. He had won the 2004 Tony for Best Actor in a Play for “I Am My Own Wife,” which was about a transgender woman in a Nazi concentration camp. He had played over 40 different characters in that show.

I mention this only to emphasize what exceptional abilities an actor must have to take on this role. It is was a surprising choice for Music Mountain due to its requirements. Despite the challenges, this is one of their very best shows ever. It is extraordinary! The music is complex, and the plot and acting challenging. But this amazing cast, director and crew will blow you away. Michael Gearty gives every character their due, and all nine are distinct, with their own idiosyncrasies. And despite some being broadly played for laughs, each character maintains a real sense of humanity, so they never become a cardboard cartoon. Kudos to Gearty. I was especially impressed with the heartfelt goodness he brought to Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr.

It was not the Broadway production that impressed me, but the Music Mountain version that made me see the worth of this musical, with its fun, episodic and winding plot. It won all the major awards for best musical back in 2004 — the Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle.

The show starts with our protagonist, Monty Navarro (Louis Palena), in prison, writing his memoirs the day before his execution. He says that, if given a title, these remembrances could be called “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” He then tells us how he has arrived at this point: He was born poor, but upon the death of his mother, he finds out from a mysterious woman named “Miss Marietta Shingle” that his mother had been born into wealth and aristocracy.

His mother really is Isobel D’Ysquith. She had eloped and married a Spanish musician. The D’ysquith response to this embarrassment was to disinherit her. The current patriarch of the family is Lord Adelbart D’Ysquith. He is Earl of Highhurst. Monty is shocked. Another family member is Lord Asquit D’Ysquith, Sr. who heads the family banking business. Monty writes him for a job as a bank clerk, explaining the familial ties.

But when Monty tells the woman that he loves, Sibella Hallward, that he is related to nobility, she sloughs it off. She knows she is young and beautiful. She says she will not be poor and he will never be rich, as he is ninth in line to become the earl. This puts a bug in his ear, and he  soon discovers it is not so hard to “do in” his relatives. He murders them all summarily and quite merrily so he can be wealthy and finally wed Sibella. Along the way, he also becomes quite close to his cousin, Phoebe D’Ysquith.

Louis Palena has never been better as Monty Navarro, the n’er do well. He has the ability to seem earnest and attractive but be a scoundrel at the same time. Think of William Powell transported to an Ivory-Merchant film.

Katie Rochon as Sibella Hallward reminds one of an English Carol Wayne as the wide-eyed love interest/gold digger, and has perfect comic timing in the incredibly choreographed and acted “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” This song involves Monty going between his two lady friends, Sibella and Phoebe. Phoebe exudes sweet loveliness as characterized by Lauren Krigel. She could have popped out of an E.M. Forester novel. The two ladies are behind two different doors, and the song involves the classic farce machinations of slamming doors and quick repartee, all while singing a lilting melody.

Cathy Alaimo is delightful as Miss Shingle, a bubbly and giddy busybody. “You’re a D’Ysquith” is a song powered through by the actors, their personality, the story and great sense of being on the beat. Alaimo and Palena could do a master class on how to sell a song and tell a tale.

Kudos to all involved, especially director Jordan Brennan, in doing the hat trick of fully having the acting, singing and the production values so realized that it makes you forget the Broadway show.

The Edwardian times were vastly different than ours and, if production values were not as high as Brennan and crew got them to be, the effect would have been so dissipated that you would be reading a much different review. Brennan is known for his imaginative costumes. That talent was in full view whether you were watching the brilliant Gearty all in red as Lord Azquith, the huntsman off to the hounds or as one of the other eight intended victims like Lady Hyacinth. The ensemble’s costumes were just as detailed as those of the leads. In the second act opener of “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” everyone is in black widow’s weeds and the choreography is stately and sharp with heads snapping in unison and clipped, over-enunciated tones that were just as it should be. Kudos to Sue Den Outer on the difficult vocal direction of a musical with so much intricate timing and overlay and counter melodies, not unlike “A Little Night Music.”

But with the nine different roles done by the multi-personal Gearty, the musical’s special calling card is that the eight victims are all acted by one man. This is a must-see tour de force performance supported by singing, acting and production values that push the show out of the atmosphere.

A total surprise: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is a difficult musical to pull off, and Music Mountain Theater killed it. The show continues until Oct. 27, and tickets are available online.

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