What a delight this show is from start to finish! From the skills of all the performers, the beautifully judged pace and timing, the visual and physical theatre aspects, wonderful singing, the plot twists – the Production Company’s latest offering engages on every level.
The Playhouse gave a very suitable intimate Off Broadway feel to the production. Staged as a toy stage within stage proscenium, with black and white sets illuminated variously with imaginative coloured lighting, the initial effect was of a delightful Victorian era feel. This made the more up to date elements of staging the story all the more amusing as they emerged. Initially, it feels as though we are in for a little Gilbert and Sullivan – but both dramatically and musically more sophisticated modern angles and aesthetics playfully come through, to the delight of the audience.
Taking the place of an overture is a brilliant chorus number warning the audience that the subject matter of the show is not for the delicate of temperament – and if we are, then we should leave! This piece of witty, sharp lyric writing set the tone of the whole show, and from that moment we knew that every word and note would reward the attentive listener. We were rewarded from beginning to end. Based on a novel by Roy Horniman, the musical’s book is by Robert L. Freedman. This show is clever and funny throughout. Richly varied solos, duets, ensembles – all were beautifully structured, staged and performed.
The story is an update on the 1949 comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets. One Montague Navarro is visited by a mysterious stranger – a Miss Shingle – who knew his mother, a woman who had struggled to bring him up on her own. She reveals that his mother was born into a very wealthy family – the D’Ysqiths – and disowned for the shame of her pregnancy to someone considered inappropriate. Navarro realizes that this puts him in a line to a wonderful inheritance – if only there were not eight others ahead of him in the line of succession. He forges plots of various complexity to get close to and dispose of these members of the family, and though murder is scarcely funny, there is much comedy in the variety of ways this plays out. By the end of the first act, most of the family have been disposed of.
In the second act, the plot twists take ever more surprising turns, the drama and music gather increasing sophistication – more of the ensemble numbers are in this act, and there is a wonderful build right through this second act that takes us to the last wry little plot twist. Ultimately, though a comedy, there is a subtle warning that the moral compromises made will have repercussions. This piece is constructed to hold attention at every moment.
Star of the show is the spectacularly energetic and versatile Mitchell Butel, who plays the eight different members of the wealthy D’Ysqith clan. Though scarcely ever off the stage, both the breathtaking costume and character changes he achieves are extraordinary. Chris Ryan was wonderful as the interloper Montague Navarro – the man for all seasons seducing members of the family in various ways to advance his position to the inheritance of wealth. Alinta Chidzey gave a strong performance as the love interest of whose sincerity we can never quite be sure – seductive, cunning, but at times capable of love too. Genevieve Kingsford balanced the naivety of her character with the heart of gold despite her wealthy upbringing. Though dinner table bickering of couples turned sour is generally of limited appeal, Johanna Allen’s relish in playing the woman utterly sick of her partner gave me belly laughs. Nancye Hayes continues to delight with her flawless characterization, crystal clear diction and comic timing.
The sound was beautifully appropriate throughout – spoken or sung, every word was easily intelligible, the band and vocals always perfectly in balance. Never uncomfortably loud either, this was exceptionally well judged. The band, directed by the wonderfully experienced Kellie Dickerson was both tight and nuanced, bringing the colours of Jonathan Tunick’s gorgeous orchestrations to light throughout. The score itself – by Steven Lutvak is rich, both in beautifully constructed melodic settings of the lyrics, but also in subtle references to other shows and composers.
The Production Company is once again to be congratulated for bringing Melbourne a wonderful show that we otherwise would have to travel to experience, and produced and performed to a very high level indeed. This theatre goer is indeed grateful!
Peter Hurley attended a performance of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse on October 27, 2018. The season runs from October 27 until November 18.