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Monday, May 27, 2024

REVIEW: STNJ SEASON OPENER ROCK

By Ruth Ross

Wow! In his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Brian Crowe has hit a home run with a (very) lively production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a madcap musical comedy involving the machinations of a young commoner in his quest to be recognized by the noble family that disinherited his mother when she married a Spaniard for love.

Inspired by a 1907 dark comedic novel (also the inspiration for the 1949 comic film, Kind Hearts and Coronets), the tale is “told” as a prison memoir written by the hero as he awaits the verdict of his trial.

Upon learning that he is a member of the noble D’Ysquith family, handsome Montague “Monty” Navarro sets about meeting and eliminating the eight family members who stand in his way to the coveted title, the Earl of Highhurst, and all that comes with it: wealth, a grand castle and, of course, noblesse oblige! When his request for a position in the family banking house and rebuffed by his love Sibella because he’s poor, Monty hatches a plan to eliminate the relatives in line before him and claim his rightful place as the D’Ysquith heir.

As if eight murders aren’t enough, Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) employ the conceit of having one actor portray the entire D’Ysquith family, a veritable smorgasbord of wacky English nobility, a feat pulled off splendidly by the very talented and funny Christopher Sutton. He zooms on and off stage, appearing in a different costume, wig and gender, a change often effected within seconds by the dressers offstage (kudos to that plucky crew). Every time Sutton appears onstage as a new character, the audience howls. His comedic timing is so spot-on that he never misses a beat or runs into other actors as he cavorts around the stage! He is onstage much of the time, singing and delivering dialogue nonstop. The long standing ovation he received at the curtain call on Saturday night was a testament to his talent and craft. I look forward to seeing him on the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre stage in future productions!

His manic performance is matched by Miles Jacoby as Monty, whose cool, handsome, angelic demeanor belies his chicanery while the expressive raising of his right eyebrow gives the lie to his supposed innocence. Every time it rose, laughter rocked the theater! He, too, is onstage the entire running time, delivering huge amounts of dialogue and singing beautifully.

On the distaff side, Claire Leyden (right, with Jacoby and Eryn LeCroy) absolutely glows as Monty’s love, the sinuous, lusty redhead Sibella, who weds boring Lionel Holland for his money while cruelly continuing to toy with his emotions. Her rival, Phoebe D’Ysquith (played with dignity and polish by Eryn LeCroy), relentlessly pursues her distant cousin Monty with spectacular single-mindedness; she may not be as sexy as Sibella, but her steely resolve to marry him carries the day for her.

The rest of the company (left) assumes a variety of roles as servants, tourists, mourners and the like, all performing with aplomb and energy. Too, the entire company boasts wonderful singing voices.

The action unfolds on a set designed by Dick Block to suggest a British music hall stage (complete with shells covering the footlights) with a center proscenium arch flanked by two arches that serve as entrances—perfect for the melodramatic events unfolding before our eyes. Austin Blake Conlee is to be commended for his costume design; from the sexy pink/raspberry moiré confections donned by Sibella to the more sedate, elegant lavender frocks worn by Phoebe to the wild array of costumes that adorn the various D’Ysquith family members, they are a revelation of just how important costumes can be to a production like this.

Forgive me for not divulging more details, but I would not like to spoil the fun for prospective theatergoers. 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder contains enough of both to make your sides ache from laughter at the zany events onstage. The lovely melodies and witty lyrics make this what Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote when it opened on Broadway in 2013 as “ingenious” and "among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies.” With its nods to penny dreadfuls, the Grand Guignol, Gilbert & Sullivan and even a bit of Sweeney Todd, the play is the perfect opener for Director Brian Crowe, who, over his 28-year tenure with STNJ, has conceived and directed a wide range of productions—all with imagination and panache.

In these fraught times, I urge you to get on over to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison to see 
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder before it closes on June 9. The perfect antidote to politics, war and stress, it is appropriate for an audience from 12 to 92…and even older! You won’t want to miss this play!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will be performed through June 9, at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave., Madison (on the campus of Drew University). For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.