Madison’s Overture Center is only the second stop for the national tour of the Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which racked up ten Tony nominations in 2014 and came home with four trophies, including the Tony for Best Musical. Part silly British farce, part throwback to old English music halls, it’s a story with a charming and unlikely serial killer as the protagonist. The production also features a very strong ensemble, a gorgeous, light operetta score, and a lot of clever stagecraft that lends great theatricality to the evening.
Running at Overture Center through October 8, this tale of scheming and dreaming is actually based on the 1950 movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” which starred a young Alec Guiness in multiple roles. The classic movie, in turn, was based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. With a farcical premise and larger than life characters, it’s easy to see why Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak felt the material was ripe for adaptation as a Broadway musical.
Monty Navarro (Blake Price) begins the show as a lovesick guy desperate straits. Living in a shabby attic apartment with no money and no prospects, his beautiful but selfishly pragmatic love, Silbella Hallward (Colleen McLaughlin) refuses to acknowledge his affection for her, since he is penniless. Monty’s spirits sink even lower, just after the funeral of his long suffering mother, who was shunned by her relatives for decades after making an undesirable match with a Castilian, for love. But when it’s revealed that Monty is actually a distant heir to prominent English family — and their fortune — he realizes that only eight people stand between himself and happiness.
Hilarity ensues as he methodically meets, and then offs his relatives—who are all played by the same actor (James Taylor Odom). Additional comic complications include a feud with Sibilla, now a jealous mistress; the attentions of Phoebe, the quirky, bookish fiancée (Erin McIntyre); and the fear of being caught by Scotland Yard.
There are many reasons why this clever (if innocuous) tour is charming:
The leads: Uber-talented leading men Odom and Price are both making their national tour debuts with this production, but they are each seasoned musical theater pros and it shows. As the affable Monty, Price has an “everyman” quality, a regular guy who sees a way to get even with his mother’s judgmental, unfeeling family by letting accidents happen to many of his eccentric and not particularly likeable kin. His pleasant, strong voice and genuine hesitation in the midst of moral quandaries let us stay on his side as he sees limbs of his family trees continuously fall.
And as everyone from a batty, elderly vicar, to a wretched music hall performer, to an aged philanthropist, to a randy bee-keeper, Odom is a master of quick changes of all kinds — in costume, voice, posture, age, gender, and mannerisms. His eight characters are clearly developed and played along a spectrum of evil-doers, from useless and clueless to actually malicious. It was both a surprise and a delight each time he re-entered in a new guise
Watching both of these performers excel in demanding roles was a treat.
The set: An English music hall stage from the turn of the twentieth century, complete with footlights, ornately decorated proscenium, and crushed red velvet curtain occupies the center of the stage, framed by the outline of an old English mansion, created by the red trimmed black jacquard of another layer of stage curtains. In front of the music hall set is a second playing area where less camp-y scenes take place, and Monty can reflect on the unfortunate events that have landed him in jail, awaiting sentencing for murder. It’s beautifully executed and a very smart device — allowing the melodramatic murder scenes to be played with vaudevillian hyperbole, in front of silly cardboard set pieces. Video projections are also used to great effect, although there were a few technical glitches on opening night.
The style: A period piece set in 1907, the show is gloriously costumed (design by Linda Cho) and played as a tongue-in-cheek cross between an Edward Gorey illustration and an Agatha Christie whodunit. With swipes at the out-of-touch aristocracy and the ridiculous class system, it’s hard to take any of the characters too seriously, which is just as well.
The singing: After the actors playing the entire D’Ysquith family and the social climber who plots to kill them, the actresses portraying Monty’s love interests have the most musical numbers, with the most challenging range. Both McIntyre and McLaughlin trill their way to great heights on the musical staff with ease, and terrific control. Their lovely soprano voices are sweet—powerful but not overpowering, and blend well together for occasional duets. A highlight of the second act is “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” their door slamming routine with Monty squarely in the middle as the two women vie for his attention. And though the entire cast is only made up of ten performers, the voices easily fill the enormous hall.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a one-joke show that is best when the pace is brisk. Though the second act loses steam and the conclusion is as nonsensical as the rest of the plot, it’s still a fun, musical evening with a cast in that excels in this delightful genre.