By Scott Clark
The sudden snowstorm of Saturday night almost kept my wife and me from making the drive out to Hickman to see “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at The Stage Theatre. Fortunately, we decided to risk the limited visibility on the roads to catch the show, and that’s a good thing. Because to miss this hilarious black comedy would be a crime!
“A Gentleman’s Guide…” was last seen on a Lincoln-area stage in 2016, when the first national touring company production appeared at The Lied Center. During its three-year run on Broadway, the show won four 2014 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Book and lyrics are by Robert L. Freedman, with music and lyrics by Steve Lutvak (it is the first full musical from both of these creators). The production in Hickman is the first in this region since it became available for local community theaters to stage it.
“You’re a D’Ysquith.” – Miss Shingle
The plot, in a nutshell: Monty Navarro, a lower-class Englishman, is mourning the recent loss of his mother when a strange woman arrives to inform him that he is actually a part of the distinguished D’Ysquith family, and is, in fact, ninth in line to inherit the title of the Earl of Highhurst – for he was born Monty D’Ysquith Navarro. His mother, a D’Ysquith, had refused to marry for position, instead marrying a foreigner for love and, for that, she was ostracized and abandoned by her snobbish family. Monty, seeking security for himself and possible revenge for the treatment his mother received, attempts to make contact with his long-lost family, only to be rebuffed and threatened by one of the young D’Ysquiths.
When a visit to one of the other eight D’Ysquiths that come before him in line to the Earldom ends in a tragic death, Monty comes to the realization that there are now only seven people standing in his way towards ascendancy, and the respect and riches that come with it.
“It’s better with a man!” – Henry
Complicating things for Monty is his romantic relationship with Sibella, his long-time girlfriend and confidante. Sibella surprises Monty, who presumed they would end up together, by marrying another man for the wealth and stature it brings her.
There is then a comical progression in which Monty encounters and even seeks out the remaining D’Ysquiths ahead of him in the lineage, and comes up with ingenious ways of killing them off. Along the way, he also meets Phoebe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin (who does not precede him for the inheritance) who falls for him.
“Why are all the D’Ysquith’s dying?” – Mourners/Ensemble
Stuart Richey stars as Monty and does a marvelous job. He moves between innocence, grudging acceptance, and murderous intent with ease. His knowing looks to the audience are sly and engaging. Soren Tobey plays the spoiled Sibella Hallward, and Annaliese Saathoff is the seemingly more innocent Phoebe – both have immensely good chemistry with Richey, and form a perfect romantic triangle during the second act. In fact, one of the strongest sections of the entire musical is their three-way interaction in “I’ve Decided to Marry You”.
Michael Trutna has the unenviable challenge of playing all of the other D’Ysquith family members – in some cases requiring incredibly fast costume changes as one D’Ysquith dies and another pops up mere moments later – and he carries it off wonderfully. Julie Enersen gives a nice comic turn as the mysterious Miss Shingle – is she crazy or isn’t she? And the remaining eight members of the cast form an incredibly capable ensemble of miscellaneous characters, such as mourners, newsboys, servants, etc. This ensemble was absolutely terrific, particularly in a first act scene where many of them come to life as faces in portraits on a wall. The choreography when all 13 actors are moving around on the stage was very well done.
“I’ve decided to marry you!” – Phoebe
The costumes and wigs are to die for (*ahem*) – the actors all look gorgeous on stage. The set design was incredible – the curtains close frequently as Monty provides exposition, and faint noises can be heard behind the curtains, but when they open again there’s an entirely new elaborate set revealed. I was truly impressed by the variety and quality of each new set piece – from fancy dining rooms, to ice skating on a pond, to a colorful pub, to gardens, to a set of connected rooms with a dividing hallway. Which makes the one technical flub in tonight’s performance stand out. One set piece partially came apart during the middle of a musical number and Saathoff fell. But she and Richey remained composed and carried on despite the surprise and the hard landing!
The musical numbers and comedy are the big stars in “A Gentleman’s Guide…”, and the cast pulls off both with great success. Signature numbers include such catchy tunes as “I Don’t Know What I’d Do”, “Foolish to Think”, “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, “Better With a Man”, “The Last One You’d Expect”, “Sibella”, and “That Horrible Woman”. But my favorites from the Broadway soundtrack album were also the best here in person as well – “Why Are All the D’Ysquith’s Dying” and “I’ve Decided to Marry You”.
The comedy comes to the forefront in the exploration of different social classes in English society, and in the romantic triangle between Monty, Sibella and Phoebe. But this production is at its strongest as the audience waits to see Trutna portray a total of nine different characters. Big laughs greeted his arrival on stage as Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, in particular. In the end, his performance is a tour de force, and I admire his stamina!
“I’ve got poison in my pocket.” – Monty
Two additional notes:
Effective use is made of sound and sound effects in this show. The splat of one D’Ysquith falling from a great height was hilarious – in a dark way. Although, occasionally, it felt like the music overwhelmed the vocals.
The set design incorporates a rotating platform, which is used very effectively several times. For such a small stage, it is incredible how much “bang” you get for your “buck” at The Stage Theatre.
All in all, I enjoyed “A Gentleman’s Guide…” very much when it visited the Lied three years ago – enough to purchase and listen to the Broadway soundtrack to the show, repeatedly. However, being able to see it produced here, with some of our best local talent, is even better. I can’t recommend this show highly enough – I encourage you to try to catch one of its remaining performances – Nebraska winter weather notwithstanding!
If you go: The Stage Theatre is located in the Nebraska Communities Playhouse at 225 Locust St. in Hickman, NE. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is being performed February 14th-17th and 21st-24th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Get your tickets now online or by calling the box office at (402) 512-1808.
Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 40 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and KFOR radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, and sometimes actor, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!
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