A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER Kills At Florissant Civic Center

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Gary Frank and Jayde Mitchell in Vivre Theatre's A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. Photo Credit: Julie Merkle/Vivre Theatre

Vivre Theatre's production of A Gentlemen's Guide to Love & Murder, playing at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre January 24 - February 1, 2020, features some of the best veteran and upcoming theatre talent in St. Louis. It also suffered from some technical issues which hopefully will be ironed out by their final weekend.

The show presents the story of Monty Navarro, the poor son of a disowned noblewoman who dared to wed his father simply out of love instead of for his money and position in England's high society at the dawn of the twentieth century. Upon his Mum's death he learns of his true heritage and makes an earnest effort to introduce himself to his mother's family but the haughty D'Ysquiths refuse him. As the Ninth Earl of Highhurst, Monty has a seemingly unlikely path to inherit the wealth that is his birthright. His lady love, the alluring Sibella Hallward, sees little hope for Monty's prospects and little future in marrying the one she loves when another suitor can give her the luxurious life she longs for. He gives it one more try, meeting with Reverend Lord Ezekiel D'Ysquith, an old, doddering clergyman. He receives Monty and gives him a guided tour of the grand old church but declines to get involved with the family drama. At the top of the church's bell tower the elder D'Ysquith loses his balance, providing Monty with a fateful decision: save the old Reverend or let him fall to his death? It's probably not much of a spoiler to point out that Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Steven Lutvak, who composed the music--all of which is based on a novel by Roy Horniman published way back in 1907--likely wouldn't have bothered including the word "Murder" in the title if nobody dies. Does Lord Montague D'Ysquith Navarro succeed in killing his way to his birthright of prestige and prosperity? What about the "Love" part, surely that's important too? Well...it's complicated, and probably best if you see for yourself.

Director Adam Grun has several excellent performers in the leading roles, starting with Jayde Mitchell, who is terrific as Monty Navarro, bringing a sly edge to the character as he exploits the various character flaws of the D'Ysquiths. Mitchell, who I greatly enjoyed in New Line Theatre's exhilarating production of Be More Chill, really showed off his comedic timing and dramatic ability while showcasing his warm tenor on the rather tongue-twisting "Poison in My Pocket" and the love-struck "Sibella." He's one to watch for on local stages around St. Louis. 

Cory Frank, who recently portrayed Uncle Ernie in Stray Dog Theatre's production of The Who's Tommy, plays the D'Ysquiths--well, most of them anyway. He bounds on and off stage with tremendous energy as each of the D'Ysquiths, lords and ladies alike, meet their sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious fates. His turn as the flamboyant beekeeper Henry D'Ysquith was hysterical, especially the bawdy duet Frank performs with Mitchell, "Better With a Man," while his death scene as Asquith D'Ysquith Jr. by ice skating mishap was one of the best death scenes I've seen on stage anywhere. Simple but effective use of a set piece brought applause for this darkly humorous scene. The costume changes must be exhausting and keeping all of his characters straight is surely no mean feat.

I had the good fortune to attend the Kirkwood Theatre's production of Guys and Dolls a couple of years ago, which featured Milwaukee transplant Jacqueline Roush as Sarah Brown. Anyone who saw her then knew she was going to be a big player in the St. Louis theatre scene in short order. After appearing in last year's excellent Jeckyll and Hyde on this very same stage, she's back for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder as Sibella. Roush demonstrated her fine singing voice on numbers like "I Don't Know What I'd Do" or "Poor Monty," and her excellent acting skills helped her maintain a British accent with fine enunciation throughout the performance. If you see her name attached to any upcoming musicals around St. Louis, don't hesitate to buy tickets. You can thank me later.

I was excited to see Julia Gilbert in a more prominent role as Phoebe D'Ysquith, Henry's sister and the only member of the family to show any genuine sympathy for Monty's mother. Gilbert impressed with her sweet soprano voice and made Phoebe feel more well-rounded as a character when so many others in this musical are caricatures of old English snobbery. Much like Jayde Mitchell, Gilbert's star is on the rise. Hearing Mitchell, Roush and Gilbert sing together on "I've Decided to Marry You" was a special moment in this production.

It's always a treat to see Kay Love in anything! A veteran presence on many a stage in St. Louis, including the Muny in Forest Park, and a longtime member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, Love plays Miss Shingle, who sets the record straight about Monty's past and perhaps unwittingly sets him on his path of inheritance by homicide. Love also joins the ensemble for a few numbers throughout the show and plays a pivotal role at the climax of the second act. 

I once heard an audience member tell her child that "the ensemble is where the people who didn't get the lead roles go." I sincerely hope that she wasn't a director, because she couldn't be more wrong. In this production, the ensemble boasts some serious talent. Robert Doyle was excellent opposite Zak Farmer in New Line's recent production of La Cage au Folles. Ken Clark is one of St. Louis' top directors and a wonderful character actor. Joel Brown, who I first saw on the Florissant Civic Center stage in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown (as Charlie, naturally) has leading man ability, and Jazzy Danziger was nominated for an AFL BPA Award for her performance in Avenue Q. Mix in some fresh faces and returning talent like Kelsey Bearman (spent the last two years performing in New York), Whitney Dodson, Lindy Elliot, Shannon Lampkin, April Renee McCandless, Jonah Miller, Jack Nichols, Gage Seitz, Nicholas Smith, and  Marlee Wenski, you don't have a collection of "rejects" but a vital component for any successful musical production. Take a bow, one and all!

On the technical side, the biggest issue (at least at the performance I saw) was the lighting. Queues seemed to be missed as scenes started in darkness. When the spotlights did finally come up, they sometimes missed their marks widely. Some of the lighting decisions I could understand, but I didn't think they always worked quite like Lighting Designer Joseph Eckelkamp had envisioned, such as when the "newsies" would stand near the edge of the stage, trying to sell their papers with two flood lights trying to illuminate them from either side. I couldn't say it the actors were standing in the wrong spot or I just didn't comprehend the effect they were trying to achieve, but sometimes the actors looked like cutpurses hiding in shadows and sometimes they just weren't illuminated at all. 

Another quibble I had was with the scene changes. Some of the changes felt awfully long, but the stage was generally pretty spartan and set pieces like beds, mirrors, door frames, shrubs, etc. seemed to be pretty easy to swap on and off stage. I suspect that some of the longer pauses were to give Cory Frank time to change costumes for his next comedic murder, and I can certainly understand how hard that role must be to accomplish with so many costume changes. Perhaps the pauses felt longer than perhaps they actually were because the band kept a monotonous four-note staccato beat until the next scene was ready to begin. It started to feel like the bad hold music you get when you call Spectrum to complain about your service being down for the eighth day in a row.

It wasn't all bad on the technical side, however. The band lead by Music Director Meredith Todd, was very good when playing the musical numbers. On a couple of songs they slightly drowned out the actors but I was sitting just six rows back from the orchestra pit so maybe that couldn't be helped. Riley Clute's costumes were marvelous. George Shea's prop for the frozen pond downing was extremely effective--easily my favorite death in the show--though I admit I'm still pondering what the "disheveled piano keys" motif hanging above the stage and printed on the program's cover represents. 

Vivre Theatre''s cast did an exceptional job performing A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and I happily rose with the audience to give the cast an enthusiastic ovation, but I just don't like the show itself. Much like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, I couldn't find anyone in this sordid tale to root for. There isn't really a hero in this story. Monty's mother was terribly wronged by her family but rather than try to overcome his station in life by taking the high road to restore his mother's good name, Monty murders the whole line of succession to his family's ancestral wealth. That's not a particularly heroic course of action and comes fra too late to do his mother any good. Sibella? Married for money, not love. Greed is not a particularly positive character trait. The D'Ysquiths clearly aren't saints, not even "innocent" Phoebe, who manipulates the law for her beloved's benefit, which, while endearing in a way, is highly illegal, even in England. I laughed at many a D'Ysquith death so please don't think me holier than thou. According to several seemingly accurate and reputable personality surveys on Facebook I'm Sith, Slytherin and an agent of Hydra, so I'm comfortable with the Dark Side. I appreciate a good farce, but after seeing this show twice now (I first saw it a few years ago at the Fox Theatre downtown) I still come away with a hollow feeling. Revenge isn't the same thing as justice. A hero doesn't act solely for his own self-interests. Yet Monty not only manages to manipulate his family to his own ends, he somehow gets both women too as the final scene broadly hints at a decidedly more...French...arrangement for Monty, Sibella and Phoebe. Farce works best when there's an undercurrent of truth beneath clever dialogue and audacious actions, but in my opinion A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder misses that point somewhere along the way. Does this mean it's not worth your time? If you've read this far you know how much I enjoyed this cast. And comparing A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder to Phantom of the Opera as examples of shows I don't like strictly on the quality of the book almost certainly puts my opinion squarely in the minority. See for yourself. I enjoyed the performance immensely, I just can't abide the story.  

For more information please visit VivreTheatre.com or find them on Facebook.

Grade: 
4.0 / 5.0