THE BASICS: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, the musical by Freedman and Lutvak, directed by Doug Weyand, starring Solange Gosselin, Michelle Holden, Jon May, Ricky Needham, John Panepinto, Marc Sacco, Jenn Stafford, and Emily Yancey, opened at MusicalFare July 6 and runs through August 7, Wednesdays – Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre on the Daemen College campus, 4380 Main Street, Amherst, NY 14226. (716) 839-8540 musicalfare.com
Runtime: 2 hours and 40 minutes including intermission. Full-service bar in the spacious cabaret lounge.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: When the commoner Monty Navarro (Ricky Needham) is informed by a somewhat mysterious stranger (Jenn Stafford) that he is in fact 9th in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst, he decides to move things forward by knocking off members of the D’Ysquith family (each and every one of them played with gusto by Marc Sacco). Monty is driven to murder by his love of Sibella (Solange Gosselin), who refuses to marry him since he’s broke. She is also rather dubious of first, his claim to the name D’Ysquith, and second, whether he’ll ever outlive the nine others in the line of succession. With his eyes firmly on the prize, Monty’s methods of dispatching his victims are varied and rather clever, all ad hoc responses to opportunities that present themselves.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Adapted from the same novel as the 1949 British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” where Alec Guinness played all of the roles of the victims, this modern adaptation also uses that trick. It works! The musical was nominated for ten Tony Awards in 2014, winning four of them, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. The book and lyrics are by Robert L. Freedman with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, who as far as I can tell are “industry” folks known to audiences primarily for this work.
The direction by Doug Weyand is sure and consistent and while each character is played to the hilt, nobody is allowed to go over the top. Weyand keeps a steady hand on this seasoned professional troupe without a whiff of the “Look At Me Mom I’m on stage” excesses we sometimes see at other venues. Weyand also choreographed and did it brilliantly, moving personnel around the stage organically and never missing an opportunity for humor.
Speaking of Weyand, and knowing that this musical was on the MusicalFare schedule for both March 2020 and then July 2021 (shut down by Covid each time) I told him my theory that perhaps this production was of such high quality because the actors had it “in their bones” for two years. But, no, he said that the first rehearsals were just this year and that they only used the standard 5-1/2 weeks. Amazing.
I can also tell you that while in general, I am not in favor of using accents in local productions, here it all worked. Every one of the actors maintained consistency and even kept their “veddy British” accents even while singing. This production really is first-rate.
Marc Sacco plays all the D’Ysquith victims with full commitment (and excellent costumes, wigs, and makeup by the Drozd sisters) although his portrayal of the last in line, Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. is so full of venom, it does rise above. Particularly delicious was the dinner scene with pointed barbs and evil eyes exchanged with his wife, Lady Eugenia D’Ysquith played by Michelle Holden (who takes on many other utility roles).
Ricky Needham is “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro who by the end has achieved the title of Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst. He’s a triple threat who can dance, sing, and act and has perfected a look of inspiration when an opportunity for murder presents itself in his brain. He doesn’t actually “break the fourth wall” to address the audience directly, but it has the same effect and got huge laughs on the opening night.
Monty’s two love interests are Solange Gosselin as his true love Miss Sibella Hallward and Emily Yancey as Miss Phoebe D’Ysquith, whom Monty ultimately marries. They are both strong-voiced actors and were able to match Needham gesture for gesture. Nice casting.
And, playing a wide variety of utility roles, as mourners, tourists, paintings on the wall, servants, just to name a few are Michelle Holden, Jon May, John Panepinto, and Jenn Stafford.
Of course, everything I’ve mentioned was supported by the two-tiered set, with lighting, and sound design by Chris Cavanagh, who also came up with clever projections. The projections are fun, especially with the first victim falling from a tower, but two of the “genius” moments are rather low-tech but high-entertainment. First when the portraits on the wall come alive and second, when Monty sings a counterpoint trio with his would-be fiancée Sibella in one room and his actual fiancée Phoebe (Emily Yancey) in another, both women separated only by a pair of doors. Well done. You can get the flavor of that by clicking on the dress rehearsal footage of “I’ve Decided to Marry You” here.
Every actor will tell you that getting into the costume, wig, and make-up completes them and these are some top-shelf costumes by Resident Designer Kari Drozd with Hair, Wig and Make-up by Resident Designer (and Kari’s sister) Susan Drozd. These two always deliver, but here they outdid themselves. It was as if they raided the “Downton Abbey” costume truck. I can’t imagine the hours of stitching it took, especially when you consider that they had to come up with ten costumes for actor Mark Sacco alone. Over and above that, the four utility players (Michelle Holden, Jon May, John Panepinto, and Jenn Stafford) take on a wide variety of roles, each of which requires a very fast costume change and occasionally a wig change too.
What’s a musical without good Music Direction and Theresa Quinn delivered some of the best I’ve heard from MusicalFare in a while. Properties were by Kevin Fahey who also effectively stage-managed. Note: At the theater, you will receive a “mini-playbill” which has the list of musical numbers as well as the names of the actors and production staff. The complete playbill is online-only, and can be accessed using the QR code on the mini-playbill or by visiting musicalfare.com.
If you’re easing your way back into live theater, this is a good show to start with. If the genre and content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!