“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”: yes, it’s a musical!

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Christopher Sutton as Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Miles Jacoby as Montague “Monty” Navarro, and the cast are on stage
Christopher Sutton as Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Miles Jacoby as Montague “Monty” Navarro, and the cast of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. (Photo by Avery Brunkus)

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has opened its 62nd season with a rare choice — a musical — and based on this one, I wonder why they don’t do more. New Artistic Director Brian B. Crowe helms the show, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. It’s a blend of Broadway, British music hall, lost relatives, noble titles, and death — lots and lots of death. It’s also clever and funny, and a sheer delight!

The improbably hilarious story was originally told in the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. Horniman’s story was adapted into the hit 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Sir Alec Guinness as the members of the ill-fated D’Ascoyne family. In 2013, A Gentleman’s Guide…, based on Horniman’s novel, opened on Broadway with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak and book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.

In the show’s opening, the ensemble suggests we leave the theater before preparing us for what we’re about to see (“A Warning to the Audience”). We then meet our anti-hero, Monty Novarro (Miles Jacoby), whose mother was disowned by her noble family when she chose to marry Monty’s lower-class father. Sitting in prison awaiting the outcome of his murder trial, Monty writes in his journal the story of how he came to be there. 

Mourning his mother’s death, Monty is visited by her old friend, Miss Shingle (Lauren Cohn), a maid at Highhurst Castle. Shingle reveals to Monty that he is ninth in line to inherit the title of Earl of Highhurst (“You’re a D’Ysquith”). Monty relates the news to the flirtatious, gold-digging Sibella (Claire Leyden), whom he adores, who points out to him that before he can become earl eight people have to die.

Monty writes to Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., head of the family banking house, explaining his relationship to the family and asking for a job. He is rudely dismissed by Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. (Christopher Sutton), which gives him the nudge he needs to avenge his beloved mother’s treatment by her family. 

Asquith D’Ysquith Sr. (also Sutton) offers Monty the job that D’Ysquith Jr. refused him, in which Monty flourishes. Unfortunately, his business successes come too late to prevent Sybella from characteristically marrying a wealthy admirer (“Poor Monty”). However, Monty unexpectedly discovers a mutual attraction (“Inside Out”) with distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Eryn LeCroy), who is not ahead of him in the line of succession. Monty is torn between the unhappily married Sibella and the saintly Phoebe (“I’ve Decided to Marry You”). Things come to a head at a disastrously funny dinner party at Highhurst Castle.

Robert L. Freedman’s book is filled with comic scenes that score with their own daffy, devilish internal logic. It is fast and funny, so much so that you never get a chance to stop and think about what’s going on because you’re too busy laughing. The book is matched by lyricist Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak’s score, fast-paced and sprightly even when the context is macabre. The opening numbers of the two acts — “A Warning to the Audience” and “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” — are offbeat with unusual part singing, choreographed with twisty precision by Jeffrey Marc Alkins.

Christopher Sutton as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith is standing on center stage.
Christopher Sutton as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith. (Photo by Avery Brunkus)

The cast is an inspired group of zanies. They are led by Christopher Sutton’s virtuoso performance as all of the members of the D’Ysquith family: Ezekial, a tipsy Anglican clergyman; Asquith Sr. and Asquith Jr.; fey beekeeper Henry; social reformer Hyacinth; bodybuilder Bartholomew; actress Salome; and eccentric Lord Adalbert. Changing costumes and sexes as required, he creates eight individual people with their own foibles and eccentricities. Jacoby’s Monty, LeCroy’s prim yet passionate Phoebe, and Leyden’s calculatedly seductive Sibella create a romantic triangle leading to unexpected revelations. Lauren Cohn’s pixilated Miss Shingle makes a delightful impression. The vigorous, spirited chorus — Javier Alfonso Castellanos, Bobby Cook Gallagher, Francesca Mehrotra, James Conrad Smith, Kayla Ryan Walsh, and Katie Zaffrann — provides comic mayhem in a variety of small parts, especially Zaffrann’s waspish, icy Lady Eugenia, Lord Adalbert’s wife. 

The five-piece orchestra, led by Doug Oberhamer, moved the show along at a brisk pace. Possibly too brisk, as the actors, who appeared to be unmiked, were a little spotty with the clarity of their lyrics. Also, it looked like possible vocal problems took a toll on Sutton’s performance, with his voice sounding more strained as the first act went on, although in the second act he seemed to do better.

Dick Block’s set design of a multi-leveled music hall stage complete with inner proscenium, a red center curtain, and gold side curtains, provided the right touch of theatrical artifice. The use of shadow puppets to highlight some of the more spectacular deaths in the D’Ysquith family was both comical and effective, as was a double set of doors that provided a physical counterpart to Monty’s romantic problems in the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You”. And Austin Blake Conlee’s costumes were perfect in delineating the class differences and personalities of the characters.

A Gentleman’s Guide… is not one of the great musicals of the 21st Century. But it is entertaining, macabre, satirical, and very, very funny. If you’re looking for an evening of light comedy moving at a breakneck pace, taking time out for songs charming and biting and faintly reminiscent of the worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan and British music halls, then look no further. You need to make the trip to Drew University in Madison to find out the secrets of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through June 9,2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600.