By Kim Edwards
2014 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is – pleasingly – both a love letter to traditional musical comedy, and a satirical assassination of much that the genre holds dear. Evoking operetta and music hall delights in its lively and sometimes lovely score by Steven Lutvak, Robert L. Freedman’s book and lyrics are then cheerfully ruthless and viciously hilarious, and this Melbourne season presented by the ever-admirable Production Company brings down full justice on all counts.
As this modern musical carves out its place in theatre history, the titular gentleman Montague Navarro (Chris Ryan) is also seeking fame and fortune by doing gleeful violence upon a formidable lineage. Upon discovering he is ninth in succession to the Earldom of the D’Ysquith family, Monty decides to bump off a few relatives standing between him and his ambition, and the musical follows his comic successes and downfalls as he targets eight unsuspecting D’Ysquith heirs. Ryan brings great charm, an appealing voice, and some sleek comic timing to the role, forming a sound counterpoint to the manic hilarity and exuberant character work of Mitchell Butel – who plays ALL eight of the potential victims. I particularly enjoyed Butel’s surprising sincerity and beautiful vocals as the noble Lord Asquith, though the opening night audience made real favourites of his affected Asquith Jr, camp Henry, and irrepressible Lady Hyacinth.
Alinta Chidzey and Genevieve Kingsford were both dazzling as Monty’s lover Sibella and fiancée Phoebe respectively – their joint performances made “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and “That Horrible Woman” the show’s musical highlights for me, only rivalled by the wonderful ensemble in “A Warning to the Audience” and “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying”. The superb harmony and orchestral work (how I love having onstage musicians) is under the taut musical direction of Kellie Dickerson, and I adored how often Dana Jolly’s inventive choreography was actually the source of the comedy (the ice-skating scene is genius). Theatre royalty Nancye Hayes makes a satisfying appearance as Miss Shingle, and just wait for Johanna Allen’s simply stunning turn as Lady Eugenia in Act 2 – I could have watched her all night.
Nonetheless Roger Hodgman’s witty direction, Christina Smith’s quaint Victorian cardboard theatre set, Trent Whitmore’s marvelous wigs, and Isaac Lummis’ divine costuming are the ultimate showstoppers of A Gentleman’s Guide – especially the latter two with Butel’s extraordinary fast-changes between D’Ysquiths, and the former when impeccably-timed projections and special effects delivered some of the biggest belly laughs of the night.
Admittedly, I felt the show’s satire falls rather short for a modern audience at times (while acknowledging historical setting and style homage, it is disappointing key laughs in a 2014 musical should still be hung on old scaffolds of gender and race without more self-critique), but this is a concern with the show itself rather than this impressive production. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder barrels along at a cutthroat pace, features a highly talented lineup of The Production Company’s usual suspects, has designs and effects to die for, and is often just criminally funny. The verdict? – it would be hard not to fall prey to its merrily murderous charms.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne 27 October – 18 November. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.