Who says creating a great musical can be murder?! If the entertainment in question is “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder”, this honestly wouldn’t be too inaccurate a statement. The winner of four 2014 Tony Awards –including “Best Musical”, 3-D Theatricals–the official company in residence at Southern California’s “Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” in Cerritos, CA. is celebrating their spectacular 10TH ANNIVERSARY by presenting the West Coast Regional Debut of this truly one-of-a-kind ‘black’ musical comedy-of-heir-rors. Featuring a book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman (based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography Of A Criminal” by Roy Horniman) with music and more lyrics by Steven Lutvak, for this new staging, Peggy Hickey—the Broadway Production’s original Choreographer has been tasked to ‘undertake’ both the direction and choreography while Musical Direction is by Julie Lamoureux.
Inspired by the same source-material as the classic film, “Kind Hearts And Coronets” which starred a young, pre-Knighthood (–“Jedi” or otherwise,) Alec Guinness, the basic, more ‘episodic’ nature of the narrative hearkens back to such great old “vengeance-based’ thrillers from the U.K.’s “Hammer Studio” back in their hey-day of the early 1970’s, like the iconic “Theatre Of Blood” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”. Just about ALL the music heard in “Gentleman’s Guide” is a sumptuous repast for the ears as would befit any ‘Edwardian era’ Operetta, delivered by a coterie of absolutely magnificent singers 3-D Theatricals and Ms. Hickey have brought together for this production. Laden with copious touches of “Sturm And Drang” infused into the orchestrations, thematically, many of the numbers heard here borrow more (in spirit anyway) from “Little Shop Of Horrors” ode-to accidental termination “It’s Just The Gas” –with its rapid-fire patter addressed directly to the audience while a funny fatality unfolds, than anything from the more patently sinister “Sweeney Todd”. Moreover, the score also contains several frothy “Parlour Songs” –many of them (and the manner whither they’re conferred) even call to mind the likes of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald at their exhilaratingly over-the-top best!
A ‘cautionary’ prologue sung by a ghoulish collection of funereally clad choristers and judiciously titled, “A Warning To The Audience” forthrightly exhorts: “For those of you of weaker constitutions, for those of you who may be faint of heart, this is a tale of revenge and retribution…blood may spill and spines may chill! It’s ghastly (–still, we thought you ought to know!)” We’re then taken back to England in the year 1909 where the recently named “Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro” (or “Monty” to his friends) sits in a grimy London prison cell on the eve of his sentencing. Writing his “Memoirs” and narrating how he came to such a sorry state, his account flashes back to 1907, as “Monty” recalls how upon his impoverished mother’s death, he learned how she was, in reality, an heiress disowned and disavowed when she ran off with his father (—a Spanish Musician of all things!) With his father having died while “Monty” was only but a lad, she desperately tried pleading for help from her haughty family only to have each letter returned—unopened. Add to it, he’s told that he, himself should be in line for his lineage’s ‘Blue-Chip Prize: “The Earldom Of Highhurst”! Trouble is, no less than eight other relations stand between our hero and that “Earldom”, hence, (reasoning that he’s in fact, out to ‘avenge’ his wronged Mater), he sets his sights on the familial title—even if it means putting some real blood into their ‘bloodline’ by eliminating’ those who stand between him and his ‘rightful’ inheritance. Soon the family name “D’Ysquith”, (pronounced DIE-SQUITH: “D-Apostrophe Y-Squith”) becomes very fitting once the family members start dropping like over-ripe crab-apples.
At one point he visits the ancestral home (“In a castle they love, that is so far above, they’re accustomed to looking down!”) where he literally runs in to ‘The Earl”–a thoroughly disagreeable old curmudgeon whom even his wife, the “Countess” utterly despises. By Act Two, with most of “Monty’s” ‘Quarry’ having met their Maker, suspicion is bound to befall the family’s near-lone survivor, and it does—as sung in the Act Two opener, “Why Are All The D’Ysquiths Dying?”: “It’s frankly all been rather mystifying. Do forgive me if I scoff; but is it not a trifle odd, how they’ve all gone off to God? Suddenly they’re congregating–underneath the sod!” This is where a new personage is revealed: “Chief Inspector Pickney” (sublimely assayed by Ritchie Ferris) whom Scotland Yard has called upon to doggedly investigate the rash of recent “D’Ysquith” expirations—which clearly leads to one man, and his name is “Monty”!
Our ‘guide’ through all the dirty-deeds and gruesome goings-on is Nick Tubbs, who gives an exceptionally strong performance, handily keeping order and moving the action along as the stalwart (and dashingly handsome) “Monty”. To underestimate this young man would be a seriously ‘grave’ error–as the cadre of relatives who stand between him and the title of “Right Earl Of Highhurst” (the family’s Patrimonial Estate) quickly come to find out! Tubbs has a felicitous, commanding voice on top of a keen eye toward playing even the most outlandish developments the libretto throws his way with and invigorating ‘Dead-Pan” style. This aids immensely as “Monty” is the figure who’s point-of-view the story is told. Although largely on the receiving end “You’re A D’Ysquith”, wherein he learns of his TRUE legacy and connection to the Aristocratic Dynasty that disinherited his mother leaving her–and him, destitute, he does have a few verses to react, which serve as a nice vocal introduction to Nick’s superior song-handling dexterity: “Yesterday I was Monty Navarro, I could be AN EARL tomorrow!” he exults. His first ‘official’ solo-endeavor though, the lilting paean on self-doubt and surmounting it, “Foolish To Think” (“Who am I to deny that now and then pigs CAN fly? Who will look foolish then?!”) is also laudably dispatched, and fully provides those heretofore unaware of Tubb’s previous work on the “3-D Theatrical” stages, a splendid comprehension of just how capable a performer he is. Post intermission (after Monty has enjoyed some material success from the demise of more than a few of his ‘targets”,) he captivatingly invests an appropriate tinge of wistfulness to the haunting “I See Sibella” which, over and above a few fairly fast-paced lyrics, by its ride-out gives even more opportunity to impress by way of some long protracted ‘money’ notes. Throughout both acts “Monty” has several brief-but-ominous verses of his tongue-twisting ‘inner-monologue’ christened: “Poison In My Pocket”, in which he apprises us of his mortal-intention toward his soon-to-be “Victims”: “Murder’s not a hobby for the cautious, thoughts of violence can make the timid nauseous,” he carols forth; “it appears I’ve been handed quite an opportune solution—all that still remains is ‘execution’!”
As the various and sundry members of the doomed ‘D’Ysquith’ clan, Ovation Award-Winner Jeff Skowron—himself no stranger to 3-D Theatrical’s audiences, tenders a genuinely tour-de-force ‘group’ of portrayals and in the process racks-up his share of extensive laughs and then some. (He also deserves substantial credit for navigating the numerous costume and character changes he’s required to make—some at lightning speed!) As far as his panoply of numbers go, Skowron’s preliminary triumph comes during his guise as “Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith”—the current “Earl Of Highhurst”–as his “Lordship” gives vent to his open contempt for the visitors to his family stronghold called, “I Don’t Understand The Poor”: “We teach them to read, but do they succeed? When they’re hungry and frail, we feed them–in jail! We send them off to war…I don’t understand (and I’m NOT being ‘Grand’,) I just Don’t Understand The Poor!” In an especially inventive staging, he’s even ‘backed’ by the ‘living’ portraits of the “‘D’Ysquith” line’s forebearers who clever ‘come to life within their picture-frames. (Rate this an eye-popping Act One highlight!) Next, decked out in a Racoon Coat and Straw ‘Boater’, his “Asquith D’Ysquith Jr.’ is a conceited dandy and a bounder who meets his side-splitting ‘quietus’ while he and his ‘mistress du jour’ -–a former (GASP!) “Flora-Dora Girl” named “Miss Evangeline Barley”, have the bad taste to fall through the ice they’re skating on (forlornly heedless of the fact that “Monty” has providentially cut a hole in it.) Subsequently his take on “Cousin Henry Asquith” is that of an effete ‘La-Dee-Dah’ awash in a sea of sexual ambiguity, which he masterfully imbues with just the right touch of flamboyance. Of particular note, is his part in the ‘colorful-as-a-rainbow-flag’ duet, “Better With A Man”. Sung as “Monty” and his cousin share a tankard at the local pub, it practically pulsates with mincing double entendres as they raise a cadence-ridden toast in flagrant praise of masculinity: “When a man has fallen down upon his knees, in such a moment who’d be better than someone whose self-controlled, someone whose strong and bold, (someone whose good as gold) It’s better with A MAN!” (“Bottoms Up” Henry winks knowingly at the number’s conclusion, before he and “Cousin Monty” tot off on his scooter.)
Far from a ‘drag’ as well is Skowron’s suitably stodgy turn as “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” (think Dame Margaret Rutherford—but with a higher voice!) ‘Hers’ is the one member of the clan who seems to have some pretense toward moral obligation to the less fortunate (even if it’s only to flatter her own inflated ego to ‘assist’ them in their ‘plight’: “What’s the point of helping others unless you let the world know?” she queries.) Ironically, her dispatch is arguably the most hysterical as it takes so damn long to achieve—and even then, it’s thanks to a clumsy accident than anything our “Monty” has prompted. Skowron’s real zenith occurs though, in the second act with “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”. Now that all the other relations have gone onto glory in one expedient way or another, his Lordship “The Earl” (who may be a tad on the psychotic side in his own right) re-appears–this time along with his ‘wife’–the dour “Countess Eugenia D’Ysquith”: “Till death do us part” he spits at her with disgust; “It’s what I’m living for, my sweet!” she grimaces back. Over a formal dinner in the Manor’s Banquet Hall, he attempts to conjure his ‘glory days’ in the thick of the “Boer War” (back when his life was perpetually endangered, but at least he was far away from her!) Pulling out the loaded shot-gun he employed while in service there he reminisces: “When you’re looking down the barrel of a gun and the barrel looks right back at you demurely, with an eye that seems to say, ‘Perhaps you ought to pray…so sorry that you’re dying prematurely!” Jeff’s last impersonation involves yet another ‘long lost’ cousin named “Chauncey” whom “Monty” encounters amidst his stint in jail. Of a far humbler birth and circumstances of even our now-imprisoned protagonist, through the auspices of a broad (and authentic) “Cockney” dialect, we learn that “Chauncey’s” father too, was something of a “Black-sheep” and was comparably cut off. Later, in true “Gothic” tradition, our little yarn concludes on a perfect ‘The End–?” insinuation, gratis this cast-off (and in the same way embittered) kinsman perched high above the stage via a trap-door in the elaborate Victorian Fascia that frames the entire set, thus assuring us “This is NOT over!”
Kelley Dorney is also incredible to behold (and hear) as “Monty’s” fetching and guileless relation, “Miss Phoebe D’Ysquith”. Hers is a refreshing presence with the kind of a lavish mezzo-soprano that recalls all the very best of “Gilbert And Sullivan’s” ingenues in a show where even the most lighthearted elements trend toward the dark-side. Her initial aria, “Inside Out”–sung on a garden swing surrounded by a backdrop of brilliant spring flowers, is vibrantly rendered (despite it being about how some flowers, though beautiful, are instead poisonous–or how bees who make honey, can sting you to death if they do so in large enough numbers.) On opening night, this was an overwhelming crowd favorite! In the second act toward the story’s climax, her ‘side’ of the melodramatic “That Horrible Woman” is every bit as robust, making for a sterling eleventh hour “exclamation point” to all the previous goings-on. As her rival for “Monty’s” devotion, Julia Burrows too, has a voluptuous soprano voice and strong comedic timing, painting “Sibella Hallward” as something akin to Disney’s “Snow White” were she depicted by Shakespeare’s “Lady Macbeth”. Her mock ‘lament’ “Poor Monty” is loaded with grandiose fun revealing just how cash-crazed and money-grubbing the supposed “Object Of Monty’s Affections” really is: ”Poor Monty,” she pouts having just announced her intent to wed a good-looking (if admittedly dull) man with a bona-fide ‘motor-car’; “I don’t know what you’ll do without me!” “Has it occurred to you to marry for love?” he asks her; “Now you’re being cruel,” she avers coyly. Hickey’s choreography for “Sibella’s” fantasy Wedding as part of this number, segues into a wispy waltz (odd though how all her “Bridesmaids” are clad in black!) Of course, once “Monty’s” new-found ‘prosperity’ develops, it sparks a renewed interest from his (by now) very married “Lady Love” which rapidly leads to them to go that ‘other’ way of all flesh—straight into the boudoir. As bad timing would have it though, he has his comely kissing-cousin “Phoebe” in the drawing-room besides! This leads to the terrific trio, “I’ve Decided To Marry You”–a buoyant “Victory” for Tubbs, Burrows, and Dorney equally.
It also helps ‘lighten the mood’ with this delectable (and operatic) foray into quintessential “Bedroom Farce” when “Phoebe” casually drops by “Monty’s” ‘in-town’ apartments to inform him that she will be marrying him (even as he’s hiding the already espoused “Sibella” in the bedroom!) Stunningly staged, enacted and sung, (with either lady on opposite sides of a hallway door unit,) listen for some nice harmony and a snappy ‘counter obbligato’ supplied by both ladies. Tracy Lore similarly furnishes another meticulous and winning performance as the “just-this-side-of-batty” “Miss Shingle”—the old ‘dame’ who provides young Monty with some direly needed information as to his true birthright. Although lyrically, her primary contribution is early on with the expositionary “You’re A D’Ysquith”, Lore nonetheless invests it with a plethora of spunk and even sprightliness making this too, a certifiable crowd pleaser early on: “You’ve a right to be on their family tree” she assures “Monty” filling him in about the facts of his poor deceased mother’s tragically maligned past. Also unforgettable is Jean Kauffman as the chronically dyspeptic “Countess Eugenia D’Ysquith”. Her time in front of the footlights in this role may itself be relatively ‘short-lived’, but she gets the most priceless lines in the whole script and is nothing short of outstanding every single moment she’s there!
Alexander Dodge’s elegant Scenic Design (–Broadway’s original,) consists of a lush red velvety curtain housed within an expansive –but stately—sculpted façade (complete with magisterial busts) as to intimate one of the period’s more ‘highbrow’ “Music Halls”. That’s just the beginning though, for once those curtains are raised, we’re welcomed into a different and eccentric world—one that relies heavily on huge animated ‘projections’ across the rear-scrim, which prodigiously aid in accomplishing the many ‘effects’ the production runs on, (whether they be as subtle as far off factory chimneys glimpsed through an upper-salon window, that actually billow smoke, or a fuming swarm of bees in an English country-garden.) Through such computer-generated imagery, it even ‘snows’ when “Asquith Jr.” and “Evangeline” face their icy destiny (–pitiful business, that!) They also help evoke a place or setting–as with “Lady Hyacinth’s” intended global destinations when they’re flashed up on-screen to appear as giant “Postage Stamps” (also indicating the extent of the ‘Lady’s’ narrow perceptions regarding such ‘exotic’ locales.) The Lighting designs by Jean Yves-Tessier also build on and enhance these effects, using color and shade–tenuously at times, while more boldly at others, to ‘paint’ subtle suggestions as to a characters’ mood or motivations, such as with “Sibella’s” pretty pink illumination (to match her dress in her inductive scene,) or bathing the stage in an icy-blue to augment the feeling of winter from snow-bluffs and “frozen pond” (again, under which “Asquith Jr.” meets his decisive end.) Likewise, would it be too much of a ‘pun’ to note that the Tony-Award Winning costumes by Linda Cho (also Broadway’s Originals) are ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’? (They most certainly are!) The Edwardian clothes (including undergarments) are every-one ‘on the money’—and she herself also uses color very successfully to establish personality or outlook, as in the way she clothes the wanton “Sibella” in ‘shocking’ crimson, while bedecking the more ‘virtuous’ and ‘respectable’ “Phoebe” in virginal powder-blue.
Don’t wait until this one’s ‘dearly departed’—catch 3-D Theatrical’s “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” now! Having opened on Saturday, February 16th, “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” is slated to run through Sunday, March 3rd, 2019 at the “Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” located at: 12700 Center Court Drive in Cerritos California. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; (Please note: there will also be an additional performance on February 28th at 7:30 PM.) Tickets may be obtained online by logging onto www.Cerritoscenter.com OR www.3dtheatricals.org , or via phone by calling the theater box-office at: (562) 916-8500, Tuesday–Friday between the hours of 10:00 AM–6:00 PM; 12:00 PM–4:00 PM Saturday. The box-office at the theater opens two hours prior to weekday and Saturday performances; one hour prior to Sunday performances. (Group and Student discounts are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By “Caught in the Moment Photography” (CaughtintheMoment.com) Courtesy Of Gigi Fusco-Meese and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To T.J. Dawson, Gigi Fusco-Meese, Peggy Hickey, Julie Lamoureux–And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” 2019 West Coast Premiere Production Of “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” For Making This Story Possible.