Getting killed multiple times in a single production can be great fun (my personal best is three). In Reston Community Players’ (RCP) A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Patrick Graham – playing practically the entire doomed D’Ysquith (you say it DIES-qwith) family – hits the jackpot, portraying eight victims of various genders and entertaining fates: falling off buildings, plunging through the ice, heart attack, weight training gone wrong, drowning, bee stings, and, as one of the show’s songs has it, “Poison in My Pocket.”
Murder is all the more enjoyable when the deceased are upper-class twits who would do Monty Python credit. Graham inhabits each of them with a distinct physicality – he’s a tall, loose-limbed performer who made me think of Anthony Newley – voice, and homicide-worthy quirk. It’s a virtuoso performance in a dream role for a musical theater character actor. And who’s behind all the merry mayhem? That would be our gentlemanly serial killer, Monty Navarro, played with ingratiating charm and sung with a gorgeous, silky smooth tenor voice by Aaron Paige. Monty, it seems, is the scion of a disgraced branch of the D’Ysquith clan, who sets out to become top dog by a process of (literal) elimination.
But the show is a guide to love as well as murder, remember. Well, maybe not the most reliable guide, as Monty, when not busy doing his relatives in, is simultaneously involved with two demanding women. First, there’s the self-absorbed, social-climbing Sibella, with whom he shares a number of “get a room” kisses (some credit here to intimacy coach Emily “EJ” Jonas). With a spectacular dramatic soprano voice, AnnaBelle Lowe takes over the stage whenever she has occasion to sing, for example in “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” and “Poor Monty.” Next, we have Phoebe D’Ysquith (Holly Kelly) a cousin not in the line of succession and hence not a candidate for murder. A fine mezzo, Kelly joins Paige in one of the sweeter songs in the show, “Inside Out.” Both women have designs on Monty as he clambers up the family tree, most notably in “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” inventively staged by director Richard Farella via a double door set-piece as Monty ping-pongs between his two lovers.
In contrast to the many contemporary musicals (Gentleman’s Guide opened in New York in 2013, and won a Tony for best musical in 2014), Steven Lutvak’s score, with lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Lutvak, does not employ a pop or rock idiom. Rather, the style harks back to operetta. If you like Gilbert and Sullivan (and perhaps Noel Coward, as well), you will enjoy the show’s music. It is filled with patter songs. “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” led by one of Graham’s incarnations, is a good example. A second act quintet, “That Horrible Woman,” is as lovely a piece of small ensemble harmony as anything in Gilbert and Sullivan and other operetta literature. The show even references a Gilbert and Sullivan staging device, as members of the ensemble pop through portraits of ancestors to join the singing, reminiscent of Ruddigore.
Not only the principals but the large ensemble sing and move beautifully, above all in the act two opener, “Why Are all the “D’Ysquiths Dying?” Members of the ensemble pop out for nice character bits, one example being Maura Lacy as Lady Eugenia, the acerbic wife of one of Graham’s soon-to-be corpses.
While this is not a dance show, Farella and choreographer Paige Wakefield led the cast’s movement with precision, perfectly timed to music director’s Blakeman Brophy’s band and the RCP’s typically excellent lighting and sound design (Ryan Desmond and Paul Natalini, designers). Parenthetically, the theater at the Reston Community Center has probably the best sound system of any area community theater venue I’ve encountered.
The multifaceted set, designed by Dan Remmers, makes optimal use of the facility’s fly space and sliding floor pieces to create a variety of scenes without the need for between-scene set changes that interrupt the action. It’s both functional for the production and enjoyable to view. The 1909 period setting is established from the outset by the decorative Edwardian children’s book-style drawings framing the proscenium.
The sumptuous and highly varied costumes for the show, designed by Lori Crockett, are a feast for the eye. Especially notable are the dresses for Sibella, Phoebe, and Lady Eugenia. As Monty gets closer to his goal, his outfits become progressively more elegant. The costume crew gets Graham quickly in and out of a series of appropriately silly outfits representing each of his ill-fated characters.
Film buffs may feel a sense of familiarity with the show’s story: the basic plotline is the same as that of the great 1949 British comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Alec Guinness played the multiple victim role. Adding the sprightly and superbly-delivered music to this intrinsically absurd comedy plot produces a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable time in the theater.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is playing at the Reston Community Center, Hunters Woods Village Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston, VA, through November 9. For tickets, call (703) 476-4500, buy them at the door, or go online.