Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1909 London, the plot centers on Monty Navarro, a poor man with no prospects who discovers after his mother passes away that she was a disinherited member of an influential and extremely wealthy family who cut her off her when she married for love and not money. When Monty finds himself also snubbed by the family, after reaching out to them with the news about what he's discovered, he realizes that there are only eight members of the D'Ysquith family that stand in his way of him becoming head of the dynasty. So, he does what any normal person would do and goes about killing off those in his line of succession as a way to get back for what they did to his mother.
This delicious musical black comedy is based on the 1907 novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal" by Roy Horniman. Robert L. Freedman's musical book presents a series of vignettes that are fast paced, funny, and smartly written. The score, with music by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak, resembles a cross between Stephen Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan as it combines witty word play, double entendres, and elegant phrasing with music that is in line with the period of the show. However, I do believe that it takes a couple of scenes before it all jells and for the audience to truly get into it and understand the comical gem Freedman and Lutvak have created. Freedman won the Tony for his book, which even has a nice coda right after the curtain call, and he and Lutvak were Tony nominated for their score.
Peter J. Hill's direction is sharp and his cast is top notch. There isn't one weak link, from the leads to the ensemble, which ensures the humor lands beautifully, and there is also plenty of charm in all of the performances.
As Monty, Nick Gunnell has a huge task: He has to make us root to see Monty succeed even though he is a calculating and cold-blooded murderer. With a perpetual wink in his eye, a huge dose of lovable charm and infectious, boyish ingenuity, Gunnell pulls it off wonderfully and takes us willingly along on his humorous killing spree. His singing voice excels with clear notes that soar.
Hector Coris is also tasked, and his is herculean, as the actor portrays all members of the eccentric D'Ysquith family, both male and female, who stand in Monty's way. (Alec Guinness did the same thing in the film version of the novel, Kind Hearts and Coronets.) Coris is a gifted comic and he masterfully pulls off the task at hand through the use of multiple accents, changes in his vocal inflection, and body language, plus some extremely fast-paced costume changes. Both Gunnell and Coris excel at everything that's thrown their way and they also look like they are having a lot of fun.
As Monty's two love interests, Sibella and Phoebe, Erica Glenn and Irma Gloria deliver gorgeous performances with singing voices that shine. Some of the high notes these two women hit are excellent and their delivery, with Gunnell, of "I've Decided to Marry You," is a musical and comedy gem. Glenn also serves as music director and the cast all deliver clear notes, perfect phrasing, and excellent diction for every song in the show.
Rita Liegl has the right comic touch for Miss Shingle, the woman who lets Monty know about his mother's true heritage, and the ensemble members all each get a few moments to shine, including Kathleen Berger who is an absolute hoot as the battleaxe of a wife of one of Monty's relatives.
Hill's simple but smart set design and his effective lighting, with the creative projections by Lew Meyers, quickly whisk us from one location to the next while also providing some fun, comical bits. Noel Irick and Mickey Courtney's costumes are lush, gorgeous, detailed, and period perfect, with the ones for Coris highly effective in allowing him to change from one character to the next so quickly. While there isn't a lot of choreography in the show, Savannah Grottenthaler has crafted some effective steps that add humorous moments. Diane Senffner's dialect coaching delivers a nice range of crisp and clear dialects.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is a lovable and highly entertaining musical, with a charming book, amusing lyrics, enchanting music, and humorous characters. Fountain Hills Theater's production expertly brings out the silly wit of the show with perfect creative elements and a gifted cast, including Gunnell's winning portrayal and Coris' tour de force performance, that add up to a simply exceptional musical comedy treat.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs through February 9, 2020, at Fountain Hills Theater, 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd., Fountain Hills AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.fhtaz.org or call 480-837-9661.
Director/Set and Light Design: Peter J. Hill