“Gentleman’s Guide” warms the Porchlight Theatre with dark, silly fun

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Courier.

Take the revenge fantasy of Sweeney Todd and blend it with the silliness and absurd comedy of The Mystery of Edward Drood and you might have something like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the wonderfully engaging and entertaining musical now playing at Porchlight Music Theatre.

The 2014 Tony winner features a standout performance by Matt Crowle as eight different members of the D’Ysquith family, a wealthy and snobbish group that cast out one of its daughters, Isabelle, for marrying for love instead of station. Isabelle’s son discovers, after her funeral, that she was a D’Ysquith, a fact that his hard-working lower-class mother had never shared with him, and plots revenge on the family that beggared her so extremely. His plan? Become the Earl of High Castle, the top of the D’Ysquith family tree. His problem? Even if he can get them to recognize his lineage (a trick unto itself), there are eight D’Ysquiths between him and the title. Thus young Montague D’Ysquith Navarro (Andrés Enriquez) sets off on a long campaign of murders planned to look like accidents, one that he seems almost fated to win.

Enriquez is highly likable as Monty, a man who is also in love with two different women. Emily Goldberg plays Sibella Hallward, the one with whom Monty has been in love forever but who can’t see marrying him because of his impecunity. Ann Delaney is Phoebe D’Ysquith, a beautiful young woman whom Monty meets while arranging the death of her brother, one of those in his way to the earldom. A wonderful Act Two song, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” finds both women in his house at once, unbeknownst to each other, with the expected physical comedy that such an arrangement would create. Director/Choreographer Stephen Schellhardt has a blast in this and other scenes with the wonderfully comic deception of the plot. From the opening (in which the ensemble urges anyone in the audience who is “of weaker constitution” to leave before things get tense), Schellhardt’s playful movements, all grounded in the upper-class British atmosphere of this show’s Edwardian setting, are hilariously devised.

But it is Crowle who steals the show here. Adorned with fake mustaches and wigs and other disguises, he gives a tour de force performance as the doomed D’Ysquith family, including Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, an adventuresome woman who simply refuses to die no matter how many life-threatening situations Monte puts her in. With his movements and voice and (especially) his ability to dart his eyes in extremely comical fashions, Crowle sets his characters apart while at the same time making sure that family traits are noticeable. And as Lord Adalbert, the Earl, he has one of the show’s best songs, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” which highlights how utterly out of touch with the rest of the world this family is. (One cannot help thinking of a certain leader whose people recently told furloughed government workers to take out loans to eat.) Crowle also has a standout number as Lord Henry D’Ysquith (“It’s Better With a Man”).

Goldberg and Delaney are equally strong as Monty’s love interests, the former as a woman who only learns to love him long after she herself is married and the latter a sincere young woman who has led a sheltered life but who falls for the nice young man who comforted her in a time of need. For Goldberg, it would be easy to play Sibella as someone who is herself too snobbish and wealth-oriented to care for, but she finds her character’s softer core and helps us to see how Monty can still love her after she rejects him. Delaney has lots of fun with her caricatured role, endowing Phoebe with a heart big enough for Monty to find himself within it. And Enriquez is likable enough that Monty himself, who begins the play in prison writing his factual account of what brought him there, is such a sincere man (against such a vulgar family) that we continually root for him to succeed with his grisly scheme.

Played more seriously and on a different scale, this play could have turned into an upper-class Sweeney Todd, but writers Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak base their approach on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman and the film adapted from that book, 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Alec Guinness played the entire wealthy family. They balance our focus between the love stories and murders, and the caricatured upper-class setting also carries this unusual farce to comic extremes. The bottom line is that it is a lot of fun, even on a night when temps reached deep into negative numbers.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is now playing at Porchlight Music Theatre, 1016 W Dearborn, Chicago, until Mar 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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