Onstage at the Brutalist-design Bass Concert Hall sits a Victorian theatre, complete with antique lighting sconces and a sumptuous red velvet curtain. It’s a proscenium within a proscenium and the perfect setting for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which asks us to look at both its interior and exterior as we laugh our bloody fool heads off.
Winner of multiple “Best Musical” awards, including the 2014 Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards, A Gentleman’s Guide is an evening of madcap zaniness – fast-paced and high-energy, with physical comedy and sight gags galore. With book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak), the musical tells the story of Monty Navarro, an ambitious commoner in England, from 1907-1909.[image-2-right]
After a macabre warning by the ensemble to leave now if we’re faint of heart, we find Navarro (played in this national touring production by Blake Price) awaiting trial for murder, recounting in his journal the events that brought him there over the last two years. Following his mother’s funeral, Navarro discovers he is actually a member of the noble (and wealthy) D’Ysquith family and ninth in the line of succession for the title of Earl of Highhurst. His mother, it seems, was a D’Ysquith who was disowned after marrying for love rather than station. Harshly rejected by his true love, Sibella Hallward (Colleen McLaughlin), Navarro sets out to improve his standing in life by eliminating those eight relatives ahead of him in line for the Earldom. As he does so, climbing the social and fiscal ladder as a result, he catches the eye once again of the now-married Sibella, as well as his distant cousin, Phoebe D’Ysquith (not in the line, fortunately for her).
At first, we’re sympathetic to Price’s Navarro. He has lost his mother and is spurned by his lady love, and Price’s performance charms us like a sad puppy. As the evening goes on, however, Monty's love triangle with Sibella and Phoebe (an impeccable Erin McIntyre) almost becomes a metaphor. There are an angel and a devil on Navarro’s shoulders: innocent Phoebe the former and adulterous Sibella the latter. At one point, this symbolism is all but pointed to by Sarah Hartmann’s choreography and Linda Cho’s costume design: the angel in blue and the devil in red.[image-3-left]
This national tour (presented here by Texas Performing Arts as part of the Broadway in Austin series) boasts a strong ensemble. Kristen Kane, Colleen Gallagher, Briana Grantsweg, Timothy Aaron Cooper, Ashton Michael Corey, and Conor McGriffin all make delightful contributions, but for me, the star of the show is James Taylor Odom. Tasked with playing all (ALL!) of the ill-fated D’Ysquith family members ahead of Navarro for the Earldom, Odom brings an energy and physical comedy the likes of which I’ve not seen in recent memory. Cho’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig design help, but the specific character is fully on Odom’s shoulders, and it is simply spellbinding to watch him work.
Also incredibly impressive is the precision and polish with which the entire production is executed. The whole affair is dependent on timing and visual magic, and this is a well-oiled machine – to be expected from the second Broadway tour, but still. Kudos to the stage crew who manipulate Alexander Dodge’s thoroughly detailed set so deftly, transporting us to entirely different environments with every raising of that curtain, and to Aaron Rhyne’s fantastic projection design, which enhances every setting in ways we might not think achievable.
In fact, I was soundly impressed by every aspect of the production. Many who know me know that I’m not terribly familiar with musicals that don't involve 1990s bohemian artists during the AIDS crisis, hip-hopping founding fathers, or singing and dancing mystical felines (fight me!), but A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder just made my iPhone’s playlist, and that’s saying a lot.
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