Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
If I’m being honest, my first time seeing “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder” wasn’t that memorable. At the time, I didn’t know what to chalk it up too - maybe it was the score? Or perhaps the script seemed to move at a snail's pace (especially during the last hour).
But after seeing The Dio’s production, it’s possible I have an answer to my quarrels: the casting. Don’t get me wrong, the tour was still very funny with capable actors and I don’t mean to compare (in this field it’s almost inevitable) but I’m not afraid to admit that Steve DeBruyne's current production of “A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder” is superior to the one I saw two years ago.
Now does that fix Robert L Freedman’s inconsistent scoring and pacing? Not at all. Yet it proves when you have the right cast in the right roles, giving a musical another glance can prove fruitful. It’s also easy to see why the show won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical that maybe wasn’t clear upon my inaugural viewing; it’s filled with rich and witty humor, intellectual sight gags, and some of the silliest characters ever written or dropped in a play. Each laugh feels like a reward, and I found myself making discoveries and finding new appreciation for the material.
Adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” this musical comedy has its fair share of noteworthy tunes on the roster, but I’d argue that’s not the main reason one purchases a ticket to see “A Gentleman's Guide.” Aside from the show modernizing the comedy of manners algorithm with its brand of farce that most audiences can enjoy, it grants one actor the ability to inhabit eight different characters over the course of the musicals nearly three hour run-time.
And the actor who had the audacity to tackle the demanding task is the wonderful and glorious Richard Payton whose manic energy and comedic brilliance left much of the opening night crowd (and this critic) in tears. Payton, a prominent and well known comedic powerhouse in the region, plays various members of The D’Ysquiths family in 20th century Clapham, England. Among the clan of eccentric family members: there’s the self-imposed Lord Adalbert, the dramatic Lady Salome, the charitable Lady Hyacinth, the bulky Major Lord Bartholomew and a kooky beekeeper named Henry.
They all have one thing in common: A young trespasser named Monty Navarro (played here by solid Michigan staple David Moan) wants them dead. Having learned that his late mother was also an excommunicated member of The D'Ysquith monarchy, the ambitious lad desires to become Earl of Highhurst by offing the eight others in succession before him.
Under DeBruyne's direction - amplified by the creative vision and style of Matthew Tomich’s imaginative scenic, projection, and lighting design - a series of gruesomely hilarious events unfold, involving cracked ice, a deadly lavender scent, and shadows of frenzied people running back and forth.
Payton is as funny as can be evoking the characters’ often terrible and untimely demises - slipping in and out of costumes and dialects seamlessly - and gives each one a nuance and cadence that stays consistent throughout the production. Particularly the pompous and arrogant Lord Adalbert - whose catchy tune “I Don’t Understand The Poor” represents one of several hits from composer/lyricist Steve Lutvak catalog - meets his end in a rather unexpected way, but the MVP for best on stage slaying probably goes to a spat where two lovebirds bite it while ice skating.
The Dio isn’t known for having the biggest stage, but their ability to adapt and tailor a show of this magnitude (similar to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) is always fun to dissect. Tomich never cuts corners and manages to utilize every inch of available space while paying homage to the source material and adding his own touch. And here, the projections certainly help transport the viewer on this crazy journey. Sure, it requires your suspension of disbelief, but what show doesn’t?
Obviously, there is a love triangle at the center of “A Gentleman's Guide,” where Monty often frolics back and forth between an engaged and high squealed Sibella Hallward (Angela Hench - terrific) and Phoebe D’Ysquith (a fierce Sarah Brown) who both manage to provide ample support that informs the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You” where Monty has to sway between the two, and watching Moan’s silly facial expressions and antics proves a cheerful highlight.
Musically, the entire cast have robust and terrific voices, and even though the production doesn’t come equipped with a live orchestra, and some of the softer voices were a bit tough to comprehend, music director Marlene Inman brings it home. Additionally, Norma Polk’s striking turn-of-the-century era costumes gives The Dio’s production spark, and Eileen Obradovich’s props casually boost each scene they accompany.
But at the center of it all is a crop of performers that truly make The Dio’s production a must-see event. A mixture of high and low brow humor goes to great lengths, with the formidable Moan and Payton left to steer this crazy ship into playful absurdity.
IF YOU GO:
The Dio’s current production of A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder continues through October 6th. All ticket purchases include dinner and a non-alcoholic beverage. To make reservations and to see the menu click here.