Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder by Robert L. Friedman & Steven Lutvak (Stars 2019)

My wife, who has an astounding number of Broadway songs memorized, saw that local theater Stars was doing this musical, and determined that she would go. The kids and I weren’t exactly hard to convince, to say the least. Even if I hadn’t already planned to go, the casting would have been enough to convince me. 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a rather recent musical - it debuted in 2012 - but it is based loosely on a rather older novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, written in 1907. The setting of the story itself, apparently Edwardian times, matches that of the book. 

Impoverished commoner, Monty Navarro, has just lost his mother (his father having died when he was a child), when he is visited by a mysterious woman, who reveals to him that he is a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family. (Pronounced DIE-skwith - to alliterate well with all the mortality.) His mother ran off with a man who was [gasp!] a commoner, a [shudder] Spaniard, and worse, a musician, [pearl clutching all around] causing her to be disinherited and disowned. Not only is he a member of this illustrious family, there are only eight individuals ahead of him on the path to dukedom. 

His attempts to reconcile with the D’Ysquiths ending in further rejection, Monty happens on a chance inspiration when the Reverend Lord Ezikial D’Ysquith, an inebriated parson, slips and falls to his death while giving Monty a tour. Monty then decides that, hey, why not kill ALL the D’Ysquiths in his way, and become a duke? 

While the first “murder” is, legally speaking, an accident (although Monty is morally at fault for not actively keeping Ezikial from falling), Monty ignores his conscience and sets out to commit deliberate murder. But not directly, really, more by taking advantage of the natural weaknesses of his victims. 

Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. falls through the ice (with a bit of help) while skating with his mistress behind his wife’s back. Henry, the thoroughly gay preppy sort, dies as a result of being stung by the bees he keeps. Lady Hyacinth (“an unmarried woman of a certain age”) who is in search of charitable opportunities to burnish her social reputation, is convinced to set off on an ever more ludicrous set of trips to distant locations which happen to have great hazards, where she disappears. (Although she finally does come back, and Monty is forced to cut the gangplank ropes - and she finally drowns…) Major Bartholomew, the vegetarian bodybuilder, has a few extra weights put on his bar, and accidentally decapitates himself. Lady Salome, a terrible actress, is slipped a real bullet to use in the gun at the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler - which turns out to be the one time she gets good press for her work on stage. 

The last two, though, are not actually murdered by Monty. One dies of a heart attack, while another is poisoned mysteriously by...someone else. And thus, Monty actually gains his goal. 

And finds himself caught between the two women he loves. 

The central schtick of the play is that all of the D’Ysquiths are played by a single actor. In this case, that actor was Kevin McDonald, one of my favorite local actors. (For my thoughts on previous productions he was in, see Twelfth Night, You Can’t Take It With You, The 39 Steps, A Christmas Carol, and Crazy For You. In all, he had to play nine parts - the eight aristocratic D’Ysquiths, plus Chauncy, an even more remote and disowned scion who, it is implied at the end, will try to poison Monty. 

McDonald was outstanding in creating recognizably different roles with body language and voices, not just costumes. And yet, it was obvious that they were all Kevin too. It was a perfect role to show off his range as well as his talent at being stuffy and snooty. I was also impressed with how he handled the vocal work, which is not easy in this case. Like myself, he isn’t a show-stopping soloist with a huge voice, so the key was to stay within his strengths, and let the acting carry the part. The Rex Harrison plan, more or less. Which is exactly what he did. It fit the parts exactly as it should. 

 Assorted D'Ysquiths in the crosshairs of Monty Navarro

The other central part was Monty Navarro, naturally. This part was played by Ken Burdick, who does indeed have a fantastic voice in addition to his acting talent. Way back in the day (don’t ask exactly how long ago…), I used to play with the Bakersfield College orchestra, and Ken played oboe. Since that time, he has been in a good number of other productions, including a performance of rock tunes with the Bakersfield Symphony a couple years back. I remember a few other highlights, such as The Gypsy Baron and Gianni Schicchi at CSUB (the latter of which I played for as well.) Those are just a few of many over the years. He has real classical chops to go with, well, just about anything. In this production, he was electric. I walked away at the end thoroughly impressed with his vocal work. It was in the same class as touring productions I have seen in LA. His acting was great too. My favorite part was the impish little smile and shrug after most of the murders. That killed me. 

Also with major parts were Abby Bowles-Votaw as Monty’s mistress Sibella, and Amanda Locke as Phoebe D’Ysquith, Monty’s eventual wife. In addition to their other scenes, the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” with both of them and Monty, was particularly well done. It requires precise timing of movement and sound (the two women are in adjacent rooms as Monty tries to conceal each from the other) yet it has to sound like conversation, not just a set piece song. Kudos as well to director Joe Lowry for setting it up. 

 Sibella, Monty, and Phoebe in "I've Decided to Marry You"

Two other songs that were particularly enjoyable were “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” by McDonald as Lord Adalbert (with assistance from the chorus of spirits of the ancestors), and “Lady Hyacinth,” by McDonald, Burdick, and the ensemble. Both bring out different mockable traits of the upper class which are ripe for satire: the general lack of common ground for empathy with those not born to wealth, and the use of charitable work for social reputation. The lyrics are wicked funny. 

 Charitable work at its...well, something.

The ensemble bears mentioning too. Edgard Aleman, Bridget Gill, James O’Hearn, Hope Ormonde, Kate Whalen Gill, and Jacquiline Salazar had to carry multiple parts as well as the big musical numbers. No part in this musical was easy, even though the ensemble parts can be overlooked. The performance started off with a few hiccoughs in ensemble and pitch, but settled in. The ensemble pulled together, and was on the dot for the rest. Likewise, I appreciated that Stars continues to hire live musicians for their productions. In this case, that mean three string parts, which are so rare these days. 

Oh, and I should mention that the kids greatly enjoyed it. McDonald got particular laughs for the muscle suit he wore as Bartholomew. As he is “fun size” like me, I mentioned to the kids that now they know what I would look like on steroids. The response was that my legs would be bigger. (Sorry, Kevin. But at least know that they have no respect for my dignity either…) 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs for two more weekends, so if you are a Kern County local, come on out and see it. (Tickets here.) This fall promises to be full of great local theater as well. I know there is no way I can see it all, but will catch the ones I can. 

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