I looked forward to seeing Florida Studio Theatre’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, partly because the Tony-winning Broadway musical has received praise from critics and audiences alike, and partly because I have fond memories of the classic movie comedy starring Alec Guinness, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which shares the same source material, Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.
There are variations in the versions, but all carry the same main plot line: A young man discovers upon the death of his mother that’s he’s from a noble family, and he decides to dispatch all those who stand in the way of obtaining his deserved earldom—while also trying to work out his complicated love life.
It’s played for laughs, of course, not in the manner of a contemporary true crime podcast. And there are certainly laughs in FST’s production of the show, although not quite as many as I’d hoped.
The play begins with Monty Navarro (Jimmy Nicholas) penning his memoirs in prison, where he’s ended up (most unfairly, he feels) after the mysterious and rapid series of deaths in the family. It’s not clear at first if Nicholas will be able to pull off the mix of charm, cleverness and suavity needed to keep us rooting for Monty in his foul deeds, but after a few scenes we can relax comfortably on his side as Nicholas draws us in.
Virtually penniless, and outraged at how the D’Ysquith family cut off his mother when she married a Castilian musician, Monty needs to move up the line in a hurry. He’d also like to win the hand of the lovely but social climbing Sibella (Sarah Ellis), who cares for him, too, but is determined to marry well.
In entertaining scenes set everywhere from a high church tower to a lake welcoming ice skaters to a beekeeping colony, Monty sort of accidentally on purpose knocks off a clergyman, a weightlifter, a female philanthropist and several other members of the D’Ysquith clan, all portrayed by Richard Henry, who has to hustle to switch costumes sometimes. (These are based on the original designs by Linda Cho, and those of the ladies especially are fine to look upon.)
Henry delivers his many roles with gusto, but there isn’t as much differentiation among them as one would ideally like. It may help the audience to keep track of who’s who that the set design includes a sort of tote board allowing Monty to flip pictures of his victims as they’re X-ed out.
One D’Ysquith not portrayed by Henry is Phoebe (Alexandra Zorn), and fortunately, since she’s not in his way to succeed, she’s not on Monty’s hit list. She and Monty do form a relationship, though, which leads to a very well-executed comic scene as she, Sibella and Monty play dueling doors in Monty’s rooms on “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” Both Ellis and Zorn have voices capable of soaring to match the music by Steven Lutvak (Robert L. Freedman wrote the book).
Another scene that rises to the occasion comes later in the show, when these same three attend a dinner at the home of the last potential victim, the obnoxious Lord Adalbert, whose wife (Taylor Galvin) seems as if she’d be only too happy for him to be bumped off. This ensemble piece is great fun under the direction of Jason Cannon.
In fact, the ensemble here (including Mimi Bessette, Chrissy Albanese, James LaRosa, David Purdy and Levin Valayil) does a fine job whether singly or as a chorus commenting on the farcical goings-on.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder could sometimes use a sharper focus, but it’s still bound to entertain. The show is scheduled to run through Dec. 30; for tickets call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.