Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne – until 18 November 2018
Completing their ever-grander 20th season, The Production Company serves up a delectable slice of musical theatre heaven with the merrily macabre A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.
Where commercial producers have dallied, The Production Company has dashed, rewarding Melbourne audiences with the 2014 Tony Award Best Musical winner’s first production outside the United States. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is still yet to play in London, where the show’s Edwardian Music Hall sensibility would be an entirely natural fit.
At a time of production line jukebox musicals and slavish movie adaptations, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder has an appealing freshness and a satisfying level of respect for audience intelligence. There is an internal logic to the tangled branches of the D’Ysquith family tree, but the audience is largely free to sit back and enjoy Monty Navarro’s remorseless dispatch of the eight unpleasant D’Ysquith family members that stand between him and the Earldom of Highhurst Castle.
A key attraction of the musical is the wicked wittiness of the lyrics, co-authored by book writer Robert L. Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak. The score is original and yet has the artful sense of a pretty period pastiche, with one toe dipped in the long-neglected waters of operetta. Fitting the modern style, almost all songs are fully integrated into the zippy storytelling, with musical scenes such as ‘Poison in my Pocket’ and ‘Lady Hyacinth Abroad’ reaching the zenith of musical comedy.
Essentially a chamber musical for 11 performers, the season of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is well served by taking place in the relatively intimate Playhouse rather than the cavernous State Theatre, where the show’s subtleties would have been lost. Director Rodger Hodgman fills the broad strokes of the comedy with myriad fine details that add continual delight.
The show’s chief design conceit is the use of a life-sized Victorian toy theatre. The theatre itself is not referenced directly, but as Monty pens his memoirs from prison, the scenes play out in charming fashion on the mock stage. Set designer Christina Smith delivers a handsome set, coloured with an authentically hand-painted feel. Concise use of furniture befits the toy theatre theme, and rear projections complete the attractive, and often humorous, picture.
Conducting the same composition of musicians as the Broadway orchestra, musical director Kellie Dickerson helms a sprightly performance, which audiences will find eminently accessible upon first listen. Chorus harmonies are at a premium, with a rich full sound achieved by a mere five or six singers in each number.
Also making efficient use of the few performers, choreographer Dana Jolly adds to the merriment with deft flair. The deliberately stereotyped moves related to each culture encountered in “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” are a highlight, with the ice skating moves in “Poison in my Pocket” also going down a treat.
Costume designer Isaac Lummis has outdone himself again, crafting gorgeous confections that significantly enhance the viewing pleasure. Dueling dames Sibella and Phoebe sport luscious gowns, with Lady Hyacinth’s lavender ensemble fit for the finest work of Oscar Wilde. Each outfit is set off beautifully by Trent Whitmore’s wonderful wigs. And there really is nothing like a Phillip Rhodes hat.
In a star turn for the ages, Mitchell Butel gives an extraordinary performance as eight members of the D’Ysquith dynasty, each as unpleasant as they are unfortunate. With fine support from Lummis and Whitmore, Butel has crafted eight completely distinct D’Ysquiths, the hilarity underscored by the kernel of truth in each character. Under Hodgman’s sage guidance, Butel enhances the humour by avoiding any hint of hamminess, simply letting the characters’ defects and depravities speak for themselves.
An actor’s actor if there ever was one, Chris Ryan makes a welcome appearance on the musical theatre stage, where his Monty Navarro is as charming and likeable a serial killer as you are ever likely to meet. Ryan successfully engages audience affection, allowing Monty’s malevolent misdeeds to be not just forgiven but actively supported.
Looking every bit the pretty pouting doll, Alinta Chidzey captures the demure haughtiness of self-serving Sibella. Singing with requisite sweetness, Chidzey draws affection for a character who, by all rights, should be decidedly off-putting.
Pristine soprano Genevieve Kingsford delights as high-strung cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith. Delivering the evening’s most beautiful singing, Kingsford nails Phoebe’s foray into operatic ornamentation in “Inside Out.”
All class, Nancye Hayes is luxury casting in the brief but significant role of mysterious Miss Shingle.
In one of Lummis’ very best gowns and Whitmore’s very best wigs, Johanna Allen leaves us wanting more of bickering bitch Lady Eugenia D’Ysquith. Annie Aitken sparkles as Miss Evangeline Barley, a Florodora with a lovely warm muff.
Musical theatre fans would be mad to miss A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 18 November 2018.
Photos: Jeff Busby