Theater Review: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER (Porchlight Music Theatre; Ruth Page Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 30, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a tour de force times ten as Monty Navarro, distant heir to the D’Ysquith fortune, slaughters his way to an earldom and marriage, for better or worse, with a doting cousin. A romp where vengeance gets served up hot and cold, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is convulsing the Ruth Page Theater in this unstoppably hilarious revival. On opening night Stephen Schellhardt’s hilariously stylized staging defied subzero temperatures to warm a very receptive audience for Porchlight Music Theatre’s latest triumph. What I wrote about a touring version remains the bedrock low-down on this scrumptious musical transformation: Serial killers can be fun.

In 1949 the great Sir Alec Guinness played eight very deserving victims in Kind Hearts and Coronets, an Ealing Studio masterpiece. The inspiration for that wicked movie and the Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (notice the order of importance in the title) is Roy Horniman’s tongue-in-cheek catalogue of calamities, his sardonic 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. No question, Horniman deserves as much glory as Robert L. Freedman’s clever book and co-lyricist Steven Lutvak’s supple, Sullivan-style score. It’s served up perfectly by music director Andra Velis Simon and danced delightfully, thanks to choreographer Aubrey Adams.

Masquerading as a playful Edwardian pantomime, this delicious 2013 musical turns systematic slaughter into an art form. It helps to have a major motivation: It’s 1907 and our sociopath hero, Monty Navarro (Andres Enriquez), is simply avenging the slights inflicted on his sweet mother by snobbish relations who denied her — and now his — birthright to be a patrician D’Ysquith (pronounced “DIE-skwith”).

Retroactively revenging his mother’s humiliation, he accidentally, then deliberately, proceeds to eliminate the eight superfluous cousins who stand in the way between him and his presumed earldom. Heirs apparent, it seems, aren’t quite so apparent after all. In any case, there are 1,000 ways to die: Monty’s “exit strategies” include church steeples, barbells, bees, cannibals, ice, heart attacks, stage guns, and, of course, “Poison in My Pocket.”

Making wizard use of Anthony Churchill’s devilishly clever projections popping up all over Angela Weber Miller’s mock-elegant set, Mr. Enriquez plots and schemes with precision. Sharing his limelight is mercurial Matt Crowle, a master of deception and rapid-fire costume changes. With true Mystery of Irma Vep dexterity over a hilarious 150 minutes, this merry prankster plays each worthy D’Ysquith casualty with caricatured precision. Crowle parodies a one-man rogues gallery of twits, ninnies, rotters, cads and bounders worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. The constant target: the insufferable arrogance of unearned entitlement. We encounter the haughty Lord Adalbert (“I Don’t Understand the Poor”), intrepid explorer Lady Hyacinth, fatuous Reverend Ezekial, insipid scion Asquith Jr., nelly poofster Henry, suffragette tragedienne Lady Salome, and Chauncey, an equally impecunious pretender waiting in the wings who may well continue thinning the herd.

When Monty isn’t shortening lives, shrinking lineages, and killing more than kissing cousins, he negotiates a love life as tangled as his successful succession to the D’Ysquith estate. Fortune huntress Sibella Hallward (Emily Goldberg, minxing to the max) mischievously trifles with Monty’s affections as she pursues the more marriageable (and unseen) Lionel. Irritated by this ice princess, Monty finds warmth and reassurance from his demure cousin Phoebe (Ann Delaney, a soubrette of an ingénue). In the duet “Inside Out,” Monty and Phoebe croon the comedy’s theme — the danger and delight of playing appearances against actuality. It’s not easy to assiduously balance the gold digger against the innocent coquette, especially when both announce “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” But long ago Monty learned that two faces are so much better than one.

Even when the killing spree abates, this mercurial musical has further fun to unleash, including a second-act tableau vivant set in a cemetery (“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?”), a monumental dinner-banquet spat between the last Lord Adalbert and his venomous Lady Eugenia (Sharriese Hamilton, imperious as Margaret Dumont), a properly nonsensical trial scene, and at least two twists worthy of Saki or O. Henry. By evening’s end the unspeakable has become the unbeatable, a circus of treachery worthy of any House of Peers.

photos by Michael Courier

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Porchlight Music Theatre
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6 (check for schedule changes)
ends on March 10, 2019 EXTENDED to March 16, 2019
for tickets, call 773.777.9884 or visit Porchlight

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