A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Robert L. Freedman (Book & Lyrics); Steven Lutvak (Music & Lyrics)
Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 Novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal
Lamplighters Music Theatre
In full, formal black dress, six mourning Londoners in excellent but foreboding harmonies warn us upfront, “For those of you of weaker constitution … if you’re smart, before we start, you’d best depart.” But leave is the last thing anyone should do who is attending Lamplighters Musical Theatre’s latest offering as we settle in for an evening of revenge and retribution leading to murder and mayhem. Spliced generously with romance and hilarity, the 2014 Tony-Award-winning Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Robert L Freedman, book and lyrics; Steven Lutvak music and lyrics), is an upbeat and titillating, musical and comic wipe-out of a family’s total set of potential heirs.
How funny can it really be to sit through a musical that details the deaths of eight members of the same family – ends of their mortality that come through such means as poison, drowning, or even the stings of a thousand bees? When all the members of the mostly stuck-up and silly aristocratic family are played by the same actor, the answer is pretty darned funny. And the fact that in this delightful, laugh-out-loud Lamplighters’ production those doomed high-and-mighties of both sexes and varying ages are played not by a man as is normal, but instead played by an over-the-top funny female, Krista Wigle, the only thing to do is rush to buy a ticket before the short run closes on June 5.
Sitting in a jail cell on the eve of his probable execution, Lord Montague (Monty) D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst, is penning the final touches of his tell-all memoir, one he decides to entitle “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” His tale begins two years earlier as his much poorer, former self (with just the name of Monty Navarro) suffers in grief over the recent death of his dear, washerwoman mother. He is suddenly visited by a cockney-spewing Miss Shingle, who informs him that his mother was in fact a member of the well-known, rich, and aristocratic D’Ysquith family – she being disowned and left to suffer in poverty after having eloped for love. The old lady also informs Monty that he is the ninth, living heir to the famed estate and all its wealth.
Elana Cowen sings Miss Shingle’s shocking but tantalizing news with a voice that finds dynamically fun ways to underscore her words, backed up with hilarious, facial calisthenics. The bar is quickly set extremely high for the comic antics to follow by the rest of the cast – a target to be met and even surpassed time and again.
The surprising news sets Monty’s mind to spinning as he sings in “Foolish to Think,” “Am I foolish to think that I can be an Earl someday, a towering man among men?” Moderating expressively the abilities and volumes of his fine, tenor voice, Nathanael Fleming’s Monty answers himself, “Who can deny now and then that pigs can fly,” with his sudden ah-ha that miracles can happen for him – or perhaps can be forced to happen by him.
Ready to seek revenge of his mother’s mistreatment and to secure his own, rightful destination, he joins a public tour of the D’Ysquith’s Highhurst estate, where he encounters six framed pictures of family ancestors – played by the ever-role-changing, always hysterical ensemble members who sing in rich harmony and snobby airs, “A Warning to Monty” of “You don’t belong here.” He also meets the castle’s present resident, a squatty, snooty Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith who sings with nose pointed upward and in back-throated airs, “I don’t understand the poor.”
We have just gotten our first, full glimpse of one of many D’Ysquith reincarnations that Krista Wigle will undergo as she one-by-one transforms into each of the eight, soon-not-to-be-living impediments to Monty’s claimed entitlement. The first to go is the family’s cleric, a bushily side-burned, Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. With hilarious hints of Irish accents, the Reverend eagerly gives Monty a tour of his high-towered church, unknowingly also giving Monty an unexpected but not unwelcomed opportunity to ignore the pastor’s call for help as he slips off its windy heights. With a sudden look of a new ‘ah-ha,’ the once boyish but now slightly more devilish Monty sings, “What can I take from the D’Ysquith’s … except, perhaps their lives?”
In such rapid successions that we as audience are often left wondering how Krista Wigle so quickly and completely could have changed from head-to-toe her outfit, persona, sex, and age, Monty meets and finds ways to dispose each of the relatives who have no idea he is one of them. Krista Wigle never fails to reign in portraying the quirkiest of personalities with a singing voice that seemingly knows no range boundaries, singing one moment in something near a bass and a few scenes later, blasting forth in high soprano. Each time she enters the stage, laughter erupts as the next character’s walk, mannerisms, and accent are yet again different from the last. And funnier still are all her many, wild-eyed, mouth-shocked ways of meeting surprise and sudden demises.
Not every D’Ysquith is easy to wipe out, as Monty discovers with Lady Hyacinth, a dowager philanthropist who throws money to any crazy cause that might bolster her already bloated ego. Every suggestion Monty can somehow throw her way of a cause that should lead to her catastrophe – lepers in India, impoverished orphans in warring Egypt, or the depths of Africa where she will hopefully be consumed as dinner – becomes not a problem to survive by the old lady who clearly has a constitution solid as a rock. Lady Hyacinth is yet another caricature triumph that Krista Wigle revels in creating for us, using this time a voice that squawks when speaking and trills with titled panache when singing.
As Monty continues to find the cleverest of ways to clear out any live obstacle to his own lordship – sometimes aided by luck without having to lift a finger of his own – he also is faced with a dilemma almost as daunting and dangerous: Whom to love? Two women vie for his lasting affection. Leslie Katter is flirty Sibella whose fluttering soprano chatters up a storm, sometimes employing comical squeaks into sky-high octave ranges as she tries to convince Monty that her decision to marry another for his money is no reason she cannot still have a hot affair him. Her rival is the grieving sister of one of his victims, Phoebe D’Ysquith, with Jennifer Mitchell bringing perhaps the evening’s most impressive voice as she sings with an aria-worthy soprano when she sweetly but also with directed coy seeks to secure Monty’s hand in matrimony.
Director Michael Mohammed time and again proves his flair for creating over-the-top comedy as in a scene when Sibella and Phoebe both end up in Monty’s apartment at the same time. The former does all she can to thwart the latter’s engagement to Monty while Monty tries to hide the object of his still-hot love affair from the woman he now intends to marry.
The director’s tongue-in-cheek attributes also explode in the many death scenes, all of which are enhanced in their hilarity by the projections designed by Peter Crompton as part of his equally funny set designs of teetering, tilted door frames. Imagine watching Krista Wigle’s gyrating, bouncing, arm-and-leg thrusting body fall into projected, icy waters; plunge from a cathedral’s highest parapet; or be suddenly surrounded by angrily buzzing bees – all accomplished through cartoonish projections and all resulting in roaring, audience laughter.
Judy Jackson’s enormous trove of early, 20th-century costumes display their own comic genius, enhanced greatly by Aire Singer’s wig and hair designs – the latter having a heyday with the changing hair styles of all the many D’Ysquiths of Krista Wigle.
Finally and as is always true for productions by the venerable Lamplighters, all the hilarity and well-cast voices are supported by an accomplished, live orchestra, conducted by this show’s music director, Brett Strader. Even though the orchestra does not have its own pit in the newly and impressively renovated Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center and thus must sit tightly squeezed between the stage and the audience, never was their music out of balance with the singers onstage – ensemble or soloists.
All around goes well-deserved kudos, but it especially is the inspired casting choice of Krista Wigle as the many living and dying members of the D’Ysquith Family that make this Lamplighters’ diversion from their usual Gilbert-and-Sullivan fare A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder go-see-now!
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder continues through June 5, 2022, in live production by Lamplighters Music Theatre at the Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center, 99 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco, with the June 5, 2 p.m. performance also simulcast. Tickets are available online at https://lamplighters.org.
Photos Credit: Lucas Buxman