BWW Review: Thomas Rowell Steals the Show in A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School
Thomas Rowell. Remember that name.
Before I mention why we shouldn't forget Mr. Rowell, a word of caution. I sometimes worry that any extra-enthusiastic praising and celebrating of a high schooler's performance might go to that young man or woman's head. I want them to know that, while I am shouting their name in exultation from the highest mountain top, more is expected of them in their next role. This is not a peak; it's obviously only the beginning. So, these lucky individuals should never rest on their laurels, but to keep pushing, to keep bettering their craft, so that good is never good enough. This Life in the Arts is a constant journey, and I am calling attention to one moment on that journey of this specific young man, an early moment that shows such promise.
So yes, remember Thomas Rowell's name. Because his performance as various members of the doomed D'Ysquith clan in Gibbs High PCCA's technically superlative production of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER was revelatory.
Getting the rights to this modern-day classic was quite a coup for the high school; they beat all the local professional and community theaters to the punch in presenting this highly sought-after Tony-winner. Before now, you would have had to go to Broadway or see the National Tour in order to catch this hilarious musical ode to amour and homicide. With music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak and book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, it's based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which inspired the beloved black comedy (and ranked at #6 in the BFI list of the greatest British films of all time), Kind Hearts and Coronets.
The plot, set in 1909, seems intricate but at its core it's quite simple: Finding out he's eighth in line for earldom with the D'Ysquith clan, Montague "Monty" Navarro decides to do away with the other heirs one by one so he that can become the ninth Earl of Highhurst. What causes this show to be so much fun is that each of the doomed members of the D'Ysquith family--a dandy, a clergyman, a geriatric banker, a country squire, a benefactress, a bodybuilder, a hammy actress, and a janitor--is played by a sole actor. Making these individuals so specific, so idiosyncratic and hilarious, is quite a task, especially doing it so well that we have to look twice, disbelieving that it's the same actor each time. This takes a truly versatile performer, one following in the shadow of the great Alec Guinness, who played the various roles in the original movie version, and Jefferson Mays, who played them in its original London run and on Broadway.
And that's where Gibbs High School junior Thomas Rowell comes in. He's simply sensational in every one of these roles. Comic timing, a strong voice, and distinct characterizations of each personality and gender--the check list is there, and Rowell marks each one off with aplomb. It's a flashy role, and Rowell inhabits it with so much energy, charisma and theatricality that the show never seems to fully recover whenever he's not onstage.
Much of Rowell's success comes down to the "wow" factor of having so many outrageously hilarious death scenes (including a bee attack, breaking through the ice of a frozen lake, and a very memorable decapitation) and so many wardrobe changes in such a short time. In this regard, the costume run crew may be the true stars of the show: Caelen Lavallee, Chloe Baker, Alicia Baralt, Chloe Moore, Elena Morrow, Shanelle Purrington, Aria Reynolds, and Kendall Swartz. The changes are so fast and seamless, you'd think it's a Sixto and Lucia quick-change magic act. Also important here is the makeup and hair army, including Matthew Conte, Molly Collins, Molly Brown, and Triniti Williams.
It's a fun show, and Rowell rightfully runs away with it.
Unfortunately, this production of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER took quite a while to get going. Its first fifteen minutes seemed interminable. Early on, due to the forced thick British accents, it was difficult to understand some of the cast members, including the likable Raeanne Castro as Miss Shingle. An early scene that is key to the whole show by setting up the plot would cause those not familiar with the musical to be lost due to enunciation issues; at times it seemed that the actors might as well have been speaking Venusian gibberish.
As Monty, Tyler Arnold is serviceable and beloved by the audience, but the performance seems to lack punch, verve. It's not as showy a role as the D'Ysquith family members (the part is closer to beige wallpaper), but we need to see something in him that carries the less-frantic and entertaining moments, his delicious joy of getting away with murder. Arnold sings well and is obviously talented, but at times it was like having Zeppo Marx in the central role.
Faythe Kelly does a fine job as Sibella, Monty's love interest, and the lively Morgan Tapp brings a lot to the key role of Phoebe D'Ysquith. Both ladies have extraordinary singing voices, and they (along with Mr. Arnold) work quite well together in one of Act 2's highlights, "I've Decided to Marry You."
The ensemble is one of the strongest you'll find anywhere: Ashlyn Baralt, Julia Berman, Jennifer Lamont, Eileen lee, Darby McNeil, Hollis Plexico, Neftali Rivera, Cory sweat, Nathan Tilley, Random Tsetsi and Olivia Winters. Special mention must go to the marvelously diverting Luke Bilsborough; the energetic and always-in-character Ashton Sarlo; and especially to a vocal powerhouse named Amari Shirley, who hits her notes out of the ballpark in the song "A Warning to Monty," garnering much deserved applause.
This production of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is a technical marvel. Siobhan Archer's scenic design is second to none, with several brilliantly rendered scenic projections, ably illuminated by Christopher Jones' skillful lighting design. With so many scene changes, it's like a chess match of set pieces, timed to the exact second.
Hannah Andrews' costumes suit the post-Victorian era just right. That said, I'm still trying to make sense of the penguin outfits and a very bizarre weight-lifter's body suit. But the costumes are overall certainly right for the period, especially when it comes to Rowell's various family members. At times there is a macabre feel to the wardrobe, making it look like a mortician-black Edward Gorey drawing sprung to life (or death).
The technical side is so clock-work perfect that when something goes even slightly astray--like some sound issues or when a very noticeable hat was accidentally left onstage for much of Act 2--it seems even more of an aberration than it should. Thankfully, one of the servants picked up the aforementioned hat later on, and there was a collective sigh of relief from the audience and even a smattering of applause.
Music director Dwight Thomas works his magic with this very difficult score. The orchestra, conducted by Andre Dubas, sounded top flight: Rachel Folds on oboe; Dylan McHann on clarinet; George Johns on bassoon; Abby McGee on trumpet; Nicholas Ivy on the horn; Nolen Liu and Sebastian Castillo on drums; Jasmine Robinson, Carlos Walker, Emma Harrison Shanna Michael, Devaughn Nelson, and Aurora Smalls on violins; Alana Balloon and Eric Wilson on violas; Nathan Mock, RJ Lawson, Marissa Baney, and Julia Simecek on the cello; Cooper Madden on the string bass; and Dwight Thomas on piano.
A special shout out must go to Thursday night's House Manager, SaraLynn Premer, who was very accommodating and professional. They sure teach their students well at the PCCA.
Much of the success of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER must rest on the shoulders of director Dustin Hinzman. This talented teacher/director has confidently guided a technical war house, a mammoth of a production. It's obviously a Herculean task, but it all came together, looking amazing and moving so effortlessly. My only qualm is that, for a variety of reasons, the show only played for three weekdays--a Tuesday, a Wednesday and a Thursday (where it finished its run). Is having a weekend show too much to ask?