A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Through Sunday, Sep. 8, $14–$27
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh
Raleigh Little Theatre’s often-sparkling production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder escorts us into the history of British musical theater. It’s not the only recent Broadway show to have done so. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which won five Tony Awards and a successful 2012 revival before Theatre Raleigh produced a rewarding new chamber version in 2016, ushered us into a slightly seedy London music hall in the 1870s for a kinetic take on Dickens’s unfinished whodunit.
A Gentleman’s Guide situates us several decades later on the London stage: 1909, to be exact, in the somewhat more sedate era of Edwardian musical comedy. Some of the music hall’s friskier elements, including boozy sing-alongs and raucous audience give-and-take, have gone by the wayside.
But playwright Robert L. Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak’s take on Roy Horniman’s comically subversive 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, retains many of the earlier genre’s trappings. Broad comedy, judiciously seasoned with drag, veers into a murderous, moralizing melodrama—more thud and blunder than blood and thunder—while serviceable showtunes are punctuated (and sometimes, amusingly hijacked) by operatic pretensions. (Cultcha, don’t you know.)
The show is framed as the jailhouse confession of Monty Navaro (a convincing Tyler Graeper in his first leading role on regional stages), reliving his sordid life of crime on the night before he hangs. After learning through a family friend (a funny Leanne Bernard) that his impoverished mother was disinherited by the wealthy noble D’Ysquiths (pronounced “dies-kwith”) for marrying a foreigner, Monty vows revenge and starts climbing through the family tree to claim the earldom, murdering all that stand in his way.
That plot device contains the only major wrinkle in an otherwise marvelous evening of comedy. Eight people stand between Monty and the family’s riches, and Freedman unwisely chooses to bump off seven of them during a long first act.
Despite that, artistic director Patrick Torres and musical director Mark L. Hopper achieve a number of shining moments. Lauren Knott is in fine voice as Monty’s can’t-do-right romantic foil, Sibella, and soaring soprano Lauren Bamford takes the in-love-with-love Phoebe D’Ysquith to rewarding heights. Brian Westbrook plays ten different D’Ysquiths with élan; his focused vocal and physical acting places the acidic Lord Adalbert (in a snooty “I Don’t Understand the Poor”) in sharp contrast to milquetoast minister Ezekial, abashed Asquith Sr., and sporting Henry—not to mention six others.
Meanwhile, Monty’s irresistible rise proves that crime pays, although some may wish it did so a little sooner here.
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