By Patrick O’Brien
Even five years after a profitable run and an underdog win for the Best Musical Tony, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder still seems like an unlikely prospect on Broadway today, perhaps even regional theatre.
It’s a musical comedy about an Englishman of modest means, Monty Navarro, who learns he is ninth in succession to inherit an earldom, and so starts gleefully picking off his priggish relations, the d’Ysquiths (die-SQUITH), to assume his “rightful” place. And he is the sympathetic protagonist, to boot. His relatives (nine in all) are played by one actor who must make virtuosic, chameleonic turns in and out of elaborate and scrumptious Edwardian costumes. It’s a period pastiche score — more Gilbert & Sullivan classical voice, not so much Pasek & Paul belting. Finally, it’s written by two relative unknowns, Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, borrowing from an obscure British novel called Israel Rank. Considering the musical’s tortured history, it’s a miracle it made it to Broadway in the first place.
But son of a gun, It Works. And Porchlight’s production — a regional premiere extended as it opened — proves one can deliver the goods without breaking the bank.
It’s fiendish, fine-tuned, and Funny. It’s funny before the show begins — just look for the d’Ysquith family crest and its motto “Omnes eidem sumus.” (Google Translate is your friend.) It’s funny throughout — Director Stephen Schellhardt puts his cast through increasingly campy paces, and they’re more than game. Hell, the music — not just the text, but the music, too — is funny. (And catchy.) There are jokes in the lining of each line, not half-jokes sold with grimaced expressions as is often evident on stage these days. Full-throated jokes…sold with grimaced expressions. (It is camp, after all.)
Everything rests on the central quartet, and Schellhardt’s work seems like it halfway done with casting alone. Andres Enriquez is an ideal Monty, with a great big face that’s surprised that he’s executing his family with great efficiency, pained that a stray detail could ruin him, and also vaguely confused at the even more ridiculous people around him. He also gets the benefit of “Sibella,” one of the finest musical theater ballads of the last decade. That lady Sibella is played by Emily Goldberg, a gifted soprano and always a pleasure to hear, even when she’s playing a ruthlessly calculating social climber in her own right. Monty has another lover, too, in the ditzy but uniquely wizened Phoebe d’Ysquith, of whom Ann Delaney seems to be channeling Betsy Joslyn at her most cross-eyed, and loving every second of it. Last but not least, casting the rubber funnyman Matt Crowle as the d’Ysquith family may have been an inevitability, but even in inevitability, every turn he makes is a delight, and so exaggeratedly odious is each one that every one of their deaths is even more pleasurable.
Equally worthy of praise: Anthony Churchill channels his inner Terry Gilliam with his projections; and Jeff Hendry gets a nod because handsome, well-done Edwardiana. (As far as this reviewer can tell, there were no hitches at all in any of Crowle’s quick changes.)
It’s probably not anyone’s immediate thought for a laff-a-minute musical comedy, but the piece enjoyed a boisterous reception on a positively frigid Tuesday night. Like Monty Navarro himself, it’s the last one you’d expect. And if that isn’t comedy, drop dead.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” through March 16th at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.