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The house was full for the grand opener of Raleigh Little Theatre's Sutton Stage 2019-20 season, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, a 2006 Broadway musical that has a rather mystifying protagonist! In this romp through the British elite of 1909 (inspired by the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal), creators Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak bring us the story of a young man who, having learned that he is the eighth person away from a coveted earldom, sets out to make it his own. We were welcomed to the new season by RLT's board president Heather Strickland just before the show began with a grave caution by a trio of couples, all dressed to the nines in 1909 high fashion, that it would be best if we all leave, because murder is definitely afoot!
Gentleman's Guide is a sort of how-to book on getting yourself into the Peerage, but I cannot recommend the story's procedure. After the opening number's warning, we are introduced to our "hero," Monty Navaro (Tyler Graeper), as he sits in a cell at Scotland Yard, awaiting the outcome of his trial for the murder of Lord Adelbert D'Ysquith (pron. DIE-skwith), the Earl of Highhurst. As he writes his memoirs in his cell, Monty begins to tell us how he came to be here.
In Monty's retelling, he returns home from the burial of his dear mother, who raised him on her own following the death of her husband, whom we know only by his Castilian heritage. As Monty arrives home, he is accosted by a woman as advanced in years as his mother who tells him in no uncertain terms that, "You are A D'Ysquith!" The woman is Miss Shingle (Leanne Bernard), who knew his mother when she lived at Highhurst Castle, the ancestral home of the D'Ysquiths.
She helps Monty find his birth certificate, which proves to him she is telling the truth. She craftily tells him he is eighth in line for the earldom and a place in the British Peerage. All this is news to Monty, but he decides to write to one of the D'Ysquiths, a gentleman by the name of Lord Asquith D'ysquith, Jr., and reveal his newfound lineage. His reply is curt and dismissive, "The D'Ysqiths know not of you nor your mother, and you are forbidden from contacting us in this regard, ever again." Stung but undeterred, Monty decides it would be better to approach a more approachable member of the family, the Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith (Brian Westbrook).
[A note here on casting: there are a total of eight people in the D'Ysquith family that Monty must do away with before he can claim his rightful place as Earl. Every single one of them is played by Brian Westbrook. He's the hardest working man on that stage, and this audience knows it! They loved him, and he was cheered throughout the show.]
Ezekial, a doddering old gentleman who is quite fond of the architecture of his church, shows Monty several details of the structure from the steeple tower. As he leans over the rail to observe the flying buttresses, old Ezekial loses his balance, and the quick hand of Monty could save him from a fatal fall. But Monty hesitates, and we see a highly comedic and clever "fall" by Ezekial to the ground below. This terrible accident makes Monty wonder if doing away with all of the D'Ysquiths might be this easy, and he sets his cap to do it.
What ensues is a musical romp through the Peerage, as Monty meets and manages to create doom for all eight of the people – both men and women – who stand in his way. I could give you a rundown, but it would spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that, by the end of Act I, Monty has succeeded in eliminating all but one D'Ysquith, and that is Lord Adelbert D'Ysquith, the man who currently dwells in Highhurst Castle.
During his reign of terror, Monty has secured a job in the D'Ysquith business, and has become a model of efficiency and discretion, so much so that when Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, Sr. dies suddenly of a heart attack (truly!), Monty finds himself the head of D'Ysquith Enterprises. This is a stroke of great luck, and Monty runs to tell his childhood sweetheart, Miss Sibella, of his sudden good fortune, only to find that his long-time love in engaged to be married. Sibella (Lauren Knott) had always told Monty that she would marry only for wealth and position, and she has found a man that can give her both. But she remains in love with Monty, and the two carry on an affair once Sibella is married.
[Casting note #2: of the six women cast in roles in this show, three of them are named Lauren, and one is named Leanne. I bet that made for some interesting rehearsal time!]
Detectives have been called in to investigate the death of Lord Adelbert D'Ysquith. Monty is upset that, despite the fact that seven of the eight people between him and the Peerage were successfully dispatched, he is absolutely blameless in this particular death. Lord Adelbert D'Ysquith, dropped dead suddenly over dinner while entertaining Monty, his new bride, Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Bamford), and, surprisingly, Mrs. Lionel Holland – Sibella! But the detectives arrest Monty despite his protestations because the liquor that did in the Lord is laced with poison. So now, facing what might be a death sentence if he is convicted, Monty writes his memoirs into the pages of a ledger, detailing everything that has brought him to this moment. Will Monte be convicted of the only crime he did not commit?
This is a truly enjoyable and giddy romp through death and destruction as we watch in mock horror as Monty does each of his foes in with amazing alacrity and clever, "accidental" incidents. The music is an enjoyable mix and is punctuated by the three couples who warned us away at the outset. Their Act II opener, "Why Are All the D'Ysquiths Dying?" is as clever, and as well done, as the opening tune, and received an enthusiastic response from this audience. This crowd was loving this show, and it showed, throughout the evening.
RLT Artistic Director Patrick Torres directs A Gentleman's Guide with an eye on the outré, giving Graeper's Monty wide range for his reaction to all of this mayhem and giving Westbrook a broad hand with which to portray each his character's untimely end. It's all in fun, and everyone who attended opening night had a grand time; they showed their appreciation for this free-for-all with a rousing standing ovation at the close of the show.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murdercontinues through Sunday, September 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar. (Extended Sept. 5-8.)
And incidentally, it's making the rounds. For a review of a recent production in Charlotte, click here.