BWW Review: A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER Slays at Stage West Theatre Restaurant
When I went to Stage West Theatre Restaurant to see their production of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, I knew very little beyond the basic plot: a man discovers he is the son of the daughter of the (etc.), making him eighth in line to become Earl of Highhurst. But his newly discovered family won't even acknowledge his existence so he sets out to murder each one in line to succeed him until he becomes the Earl. What ensues is two hours of quick comedy, tight harmonies and more than a few outrageous deaths. The cast works tirelessly to keep the pace of the show while telling this ever-so-slightly exaggerated comedy about love, murder, and ambition. And did they ever succeed. A Gentleman's Guide has raised the bar for Stage West Theatre.
As the Canadian Premiere of the 2014 Tony winner for Best Musical, the stage was set to assemble a strong cast of players to take on these challenging roles; particularly the roles of the ambitiously sinister, romantically indecisive Monty Navarro, and The D'Ysquith Family: One man, a dozen faces. Director Mark Bellamy has assembled an extraordinary group from across Canada and put them to work. I cannot imagine the level of chaos backstage as they perform quick change after set change after quick change again. And yet it all seems so effortless onstage. I trust that as they continue to perform, transitions and costume changes will get tighter and there won't be the occasional pause in dialogue, but there's so much to love about this show; and half of it is their sheer organization and memory. The other half is made up of clever acting, excellent comedic timing, and beautiful singing. Music director Konrad Pluta clearly challenged the actors to maintain that sharp but classical sound - one not heard as often in contemporary musicals but well suited for the style of the show.
Propelling it all forward is the ensemble cast of characters, including: Alicia Barban, Emily Dallas, Katherine Fadum, Sarah Gibbons, Mark Allan, Jeremy Lapalme, Luke Marty, and Tyler McKinnon. Fadum's over the top countess, McKinnon's devilishly low bass, and Barban's nasally Evangeline Barley were highlights for me but the entire cast was so strong.
Creating the world of turn-of-the-century London was a set design by David Fraser, sound design by Michael Gesy, lighting design by Anton de Groot, wigs by Norman MacDonald, and costume design by Leslie Robinson-Greene. I liked the clear parallels between Phoebe and Sibella's appearance from wig to costume - though I was occasionally distracted by the placement of Phoebe's curls, and some of Sibella's costumes were Wickedly pink. She stood out a fair bit - which I have to assume is the character's aim. I also appreciated the use of projections for comedic timing and distinction of location, especially considering how fast certain scene changes were. I love a simple but elegant set that can be used to get the point across. And by simple, I mean that Fraser designed an entire stage within the stage that brought the audience a Victorian vaudeville feeling, which is exactly what we needed.
And taking the vaudevillian stage were some incredibly talented actors; starting with Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan as Miss Shingle, the sweet and conniving, audience-winking maid who sets Monty on his journey for revenge. She's only seen a few times but she is so integral to the plot, and everytime Stepkowski-Tarhan stepped out on stage, I knew I was in for a laugh.
The two love interests, tantalizing Sibella Hallward (played by Kate Blackburn), and naive Phoebe D'Ysquith (played by Ellen Denny) left me wanting. Both women had strong voices and over-the-top characteristics but if I had one wish: it would be for more. More exaggeration, more milking; just a little extra something from both of them. Clearly Blackburn has a beautiful belt but I don't know that all of the riffs and mixed straight-tone matched her comedically outlandish portrayal of Sibella. Counter to that, I wanted more exaggeration from Denny to match her gorgeous soprano. I didn't find as much comedy in her performance as I expected to. She sounded wonderful, and I believed what she was saying but it didn't match the same intensity as everyone else on stage. Especially against her scene partner, the wildly dramatic Monty.
Sayer Roberts' portrayal of Monty Navarro was simply stunning. His journey from pauper to Earl, the confidence we see grow inside him, and the sheer amount of words that he has to present to the audience left me in awe. I was incredibly impressed with not only his voice but the comedic beats and the memorization. He clearly has the rhythm of the show down and he carried the story well - if occasionally pausing at the end of the line when something else was needed to fill the time.
The character I was most excited to see was in fact a collection ten different characters rolled into one man: The D'Ysquith Family. Played by Tyler Murree, I was not disappointed. Not only did he change his costumes at unbelievable speeds (thanks in no small part to the dressers and stage management team working backstage), but he created 10 distinctly unique voices and personalities and he kept them all straight without looking like he was about to collapse from exhaustion. I was sold. I would have liked a little more distinction between his male and female voices but it didn't matter as much because when Murree came waltzing across the stage, carrying himself like a busty Victorian woman, I would have believed anything he said.
I officially have a new favourite musical (until the next new favourite musical). A Gentleman's Guide is the brand of macabre humour that appeals to me and I loved the effortless appearance of all that hard work. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time and I wish I could go back again. Mark Bellamy and the entire cast and crew have created an amazing show.