Once again the arts mirror sports. As football fans watch teams vying for the championship battling to eliminate each other in the playoffs, the Ritz Theatre Company treated audiences to a similar premise. They opened this year’s season with a tale of a young man eliminating rivals in his quest for an earldom. To show just how driven he was, he utilized even more ruthless methods than Sean Payton. I witnessed the spectacle myself on January 19th.
Set in Edwardian Britain, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder delivered just what the title promised. It showed Monty Navarro’s (played by Taylor Darden) ascent from poverty into the British aristocracy. Following his mother’s death, Miss Shingle (Trisha Dennis) told him a family secret. Mrs. Navarro was a relative of the posh D’Yasquith family. They had disowned her for marrying out of her class in favor of a travelling musician.
Upon this discovery, Monty wrote to Lord Asquith D’Yasquith, Sr. requesting a job. The latter responded by telling Monty never to contact him again.
To complicate matters for Monty, he’d fallen in love with the sprightly Sibella (Sophie Jones). She rejected him opting instead to marry a wealthy man in spite of finding him rather dull.
Monty had no money. Because of that he’d lost the woman he loved. And he was eighth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. Monty personified Frank Sinatra’s observation that: “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” He resolved to ascend the social ladder by taking out a few rungs. Monty chose to murder his way into an earldom.
The premise would suggest A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a terrifying horror story. Author Robert L. Freedman and songwriter Steven Lutvak instead developed Roy Horniman’s concept into a musical comedy. Director Peter John Rios chose the perfect cast for such an endeavor.
Taylor Darden’s stage presence made him the perfect Monty. Through his boyish-looks along with his mischievous mannerisms he became the character. The way he winked at the audience at the show’s end expressed Monty’s inner thoughts wittily. Mr. Darden also used props for comedic effect very well; especially through the way he scurried about the stage with an axe.
Mr. Darden treated the audience with his exceptional vocal prowess. He performed a wonderful ode to Monty’s love interest in “Sibella.” Mr. Darden displayed range by delivering a memorable comedic number with the same proficiency. The audience enjoyed his duet with Nicholas French on the double entendre laden “Better with a Man.”
For theatre fans who enjoy operatic vocals, this show is a must see. Musical director Michael J. Weaver worked with a trio of talented performers. Sophie Jones (as Sibella), Mariel Rosati (as Phoebe) and Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) all performed superb vocals with a challenging score. I’d also compliment Mr. Weaver’s stellar piano playing to accompany them.
The evening’s highlight came when Mr. Darden, Ms. Jones and Ms. Rosati teamed-up for the “I’ve Decided to Marry You” number. Phoebe proposed to Navarro while Sibella listened in on the other side. The routine included some elaborate coordination and choreography (also by Peter John Rios). A set with two doors was placed in the center of the stage. Ms. Jones remained on one side, Ms. Rosati and Mr. Darden on the other. As they sang Ms. Jones tried to listen in and then enter the other room as Mr. Darden struggled to block her. The scene made for quite a visual spectacle.
When a show contains numerous dramatis personae it can become difficult to follow. When the same actor performs most of the roles all of them can seem similar. Performer Nicholas French ensured that didn’t happen. Mr. French played eight members of the D’Yasquith family; that included two women.
Mr. French gave every character its own distinct personality. For Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Sr. he adopted an austere, dignified persona. He played Asquith D’Yasquith, Jr. as a sybaritic playboy. Working with Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) in that role the two performers displayed great chemistry as one another’s love interest. Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Jr. behaved like a glutton; even making snorting noises while dining.
This actor proved just as adept at playing the female family members. Mr. French showed himself a much better performer than the one he played: Lady Salome D’Yasquith Pumphrey. His rendition of aspiring philanthropist Lady Hyacinth D’Yasquith, was among his best.
Mr. French showed extraordinary skill playing all these roles. His rendition of “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and his performance as weightlifter Major Bartholomew D’Asquith were absolutely hysterical. He displayed the most talent performing the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Yasquith. For that role he wore prosthetic teeth which gave the character an overbite. Even with that obstruction in his mouth, Mr. French still delivered his lines clearly.
After Mr. French’s performances as each character I could understand just how much having money and status meant to Mr. Navarro. It had to for him to want in to this family.
As one can surmise, playing eight characters in one show required “the fastest quick changes ever” as the director described them in the playbill. One has to credit Mr. French and “quick change dresser” Briana Bailey for executing them so flawlessly.
Michael J. DeFlorio played a superbly comical Chief Inspector Pinckney. With his Sherlock Holmes outfit, continuous mouth twitching and drawling of a British accent he made his stage time very entertaining.
The following performers rounded out the cast: Trishia Dennis, Caroline Milby, Shawn Hudson, Megan Felasco, Bryce Menard, and Charles Finchon.
Act Two opened with the musical question, “Why Are All the D’Yasquiths Dying?” The mourners at the final funeral sang the lines:
I happened to notice there wasn’t a lot of crying
I even heard a snigger from the back
Oh, it really is a shame
How I start to feel the same
How many are there left to bury after what’s-his-name?
Theatre fans won’t take that attitude when this run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder wraps. The Ritz is currently the only regional licensor of the show. Theatre fans in the South Jersey area should see it while they can. It meets the fate of many D’Yasquith family members after February 3rd.