“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” currently playing at the MusicalFare Theatre, is a 2013 Broadway operetta based on a 1907 novel that also inspired the classic 1949 British motion picture comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” . If you like old movies, you’re already excited.
‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ is one of the finest ‘Ealing Comedies’, divinely clever and charming films made in Britain’s Ealing studios after World War II. This film is best remembered for the performance of Alec Guinness, who played the nine members of an aristocratic family who are murdered, one by one, by an ambitious relative who seeks to become an earl.
Book and lyrics by Robert L. Freeman, with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. While the family name is changed in the musical, the conceit of an actor playing all male and female relationships is maintained. Marc Sacco plays all of the D’Ysquiths, while Ricky Needham as Monty Navarro comically sets out to murder each, while simultaneously juggling potential romances with two desirable women.
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When we meet Monty, he is in jail awaiting the outcome of his murder trial. He spends his time writing his memoirs, which he tells the public, taking us back to 1907, the day of his mother’s funeral. Mom was a laundress who raised Monty in poverty, but always urged him to have aspirations. His ambitions change when Miss Marietta Shingle shows up. Played with brazen excess by that consummate clown, Jenn Stafford, it informs Monty of his aristocratic lineage. He is a D’Ysquith, ninth in line to be Earl of Highhurst.
Immediately, Monty launches into a deliciously comedic kill spree. Murder hasn’t been this entertaining since…well, imagine Monty as a happy child in love with Sweeney Todd and Lady Macbeth.
The production, directed and choreographed by Doug Weyand, is smart and stylish. The challenging score, reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, is led by a talented live band, with skill and wit under the musical direction of Theresa Quinn. The production, with its split characters, reveals a wide range of talent among an attractive cast.
The heart and soul of the show are, necessarily, the actors who play Monty and the lineage of the D’Ysquiths. MusicalFare strikes gold with the cast of Needham and Sacco, each talented, charming and unapologetically silly.
Sacco benefits from the gift of a tour de force ability to create many characters. It deploys every trick in the arsenal of farce, slapstick, drag, deadpan and physical comedy, even employing a moment of lip/ventriloquism sync. I imagine his costume changes backstage are almost as entertaining as what happens on stage.
Needham’s benign and even phlegmatic personality is camouflage for the comically explosive volcano lurking beneath the surface. As he did on his award-winning turn in “The Boys Upstairs” at Buffalo United Artists (where, interestingly, he had the opportunity to play five one-night stands, just like Sacco can play all D ‘Ysquiths here), Needham wastes no opportunity to deepen our bond with the characters he plays, through the bond of laughter. We feel protective of Needham as Monty and encourage him to get away with murder. He also happens to have a surprisingly rich singing voice and rises to the occasion of songs such as the lavishly haunting “Sibella” in impressive fashion.
The brilliance of Sacco’s performance might overshadow the fact that the rest of the company is also called upon to play multiple characters, but without half the weight and prominence. Still, lavish credit is due to this capable crew.
Michelle Holden, Jon May and John Panepinto do a yeoman’s job of keeping the action moving and at the same time punctuating the evening with brilliant flourishes of comedic invention. Everyone is divine.
Solange Gosselin is very funny as the egocentric and calculating Sibella, creating a woman who is both obnoxious and irresistible.
Emily Yancey’s performance convinces me that our theater community has rather underappreciated and underutilized her. She’s notable as Phoebe D’Ysquith (and as a former showgirl who becomes collateral damage in one of the murders). She sings like an angel and is terribly funny.
Kari Drozd’s costumes and Susan Drozd’s hair and wigs set the perfect tone of sophistication and silliness.
The danger of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is that its tone of elegant sophistication is actually a trick. It’s a night of silly buffoonery dressed in refinement, unbridled burlesque. To fully enjoy the experience, let the actors tell their story with deadpan seriousness, but from the audience, go ahead and laugh your head off!
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
Presented by MusicalFare Theater at Daemen College through August 7. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $49 (musicalfare.com, 716-839-8540).