In an era of True Crime obsession, (ACT 2-“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying”), calling for gun control (ACT 2-“Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”), and economic imbalance (ACT 1-“I don’t understand the poor”), this show is an amalgamation of songsters Gilbert and Sullivan, (farce master), Michael Fryan, and the macab of author Edgar Allen Poe (ACT 1-”Poison in My Pocket), all rolled into one tightly wound evening. In theme with this spooky season, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is a variable “how to” guide. Charismatic narrator, the charmering MONTY NAVARRO confesses his successful snuffing out of all successors ahead of him in line for his (presumed) family status, fame and fortune. Though this play is set in stuffy 1909 London, because it was written in the past decade, it has a modern clip, voracious wit, and bawdy sense of humor.
Charles Isherwood of The New York Times praised the production as "ingenious" and "among the most inspired and entertaining new musicals (that matches) streams of memorable melody with fizzily witty turns of phrase." Elysa Gardner, reviewer for USA Today, claimed the musical was "morbidly hilarious," a quote that I particularly love and agree with. A musical comedy, with the book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, it’s based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. The show opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre November 17, 2013, where it ran until January 17, 2016. The Broadway production won four Tony Awards at the 68th Tony Awards in June 2014, including Best Musical. When you go, you will see why.
I was lucky enough to attend the New York production, where I found it gut-bustingly delightful, and was thrilled to see that it was being produced locally this season. Having never experienced anything at the Old Log Theatre, I jumped at the chance to take the trip out to Excelsior, MN and revisit the nuttiness of the D’Ysquith Family once again. NOTE: Often, I worry about seeing, (let alone reviewing), a show that I’ve previously enjoyed so much. It’s tough to have such high expectations and you run the risk of them not being met, therefore ruining the original memory of the show. Let me just say, there was no need for concern on my part. This show did not disappoint! I credit the theatre, the company, and certainly Director Erik Morris, for keeping this masterly crafted show as inspired as I remember.
I’ll begin with the performers. This is a darn hard show and Max Wojtanowicz, a winsome local talent, tackles the main role of MONTY NAVARRO like a champ. The striking thing here is that in my (albeit limited), experience of Wojtanowicz’s work, I found that he is a brilliant character actor. I loved the thought of him walking in the well heeled shoes of Jefferson Mays, the TONY nominated scenery chewer in the Broadway run. No folks, my mistake, Wojtanowicz plays it straight (if there’s such a thing in this show), and after this performance as NAVARRO, I must proclaim him a bonafide romantic lead! His voice is lovely (ACT 1-”Foolish to think”), his chemistry electric, and he handily drives the show. So if not Wojtanowicz, who WAS going to play the entire D’YSQUITH FAMILY, originated by the immortal Mays? “Well duh!” moment, the uproarious David Beukema, of course! With seeming effortlessness, he goes from character to costume change with frolicky aplomb. His on-stage workout is a true testament to him as a gifted comic actor and consummate professional. The female foils, Elizabeth Hawkinson (PHOEBE D’YSQUITH) and Emily Scinto (SIBELLA HALLWARD) show off terrific voices and again major kudos to them--this music is tough. With multiple complex parts, various trios, duets, patter songs, they make saucy and clever character choices and showcase impeccable timing. These four are definitely a highlight, and their performances are not to be missed.
Musical Director, Bradly Beahen, must be credited for guiding this talented group through these melodic webs with efficacy. Choreography and Musical Staging Director, Joey Miller uses the utmost precision in his staged movement, to articulate the actions of the play. For example, it was a treat to try and track the trajectory of a purse or a particular pair of gloves in a patter song (ACT 2-”I’ve Decided to Marry You”). Miller nimbly uses the capable ENSEMBLE (Sharayah Lynn Bunce, Diiedre Cochran, Luke Davidson, Suzie Juul,Caleb Michael, and Gabriel Sell, respectively) to create a tableau of actors, and turns them into ottomans and arm rests, paintings coming to life, or shadow puppetry. One scene had actors circulating a coffin/alter to signify the assent of a circular stairway that ended in a view from a church tower. With the help of resident set and lighting designer Erik Paulson, everything is classic and expertly functional. Doors and window/picture frames on wheels, roll smoothly from one scene change to the next, while complementing the static backdrop of the D’Ysquith family portraits (or the goofy iterations of Beukema). I want to also mention how cozily this entire production fits, nestled in the proscenium of the Old Log’s rustically refined space, which I noticed immediately when I took my seat. If I have any complaints, and it was hard to find any if I’m honest, there was not one person on that stage that appeared to be over thirty-five years old. I may be off by a year or two (and/or congrats you’re all aging beautifully), but this show has tons of characters, of many different backgrounds and ages, and it would have been great to see more diversity in the ten actors treading those boards. I know this isn’t always something casting has control over, I just think it’s worth pointing out and always worth thinking about.
In summary, if you haven’t gathered already, I’m a huge fan of this show, and now a champion of this particular production. I highly recommend you make time to go out to the ‘burbs, (it really is not that far) and see it. I can almost guarantee that, like me, you’ll catch yourself mid grin throughout the whole thing and leave there wishing there was more. Congratulations to the Old Log and all involved in this engaging evening of musical farce and fun. I will definitely be back to see you again soon.