Encore Michigan

Tibbits’ ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ delicious and delightful

Review July 21, 2018 David Kiley

COLDWATER, Mich.–Perhaps it’s because we seem to living in an era of audacity, a time when people are just saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do no matter how inappropriate or socially deplorable that a musical comedy about a man killing off family members standing between him and a monied title of nobility seems to fit right in with today’s zeitgeist.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which had a very successful Broadway run and touring schedule is now being offered to regional theaters, and Tibbits Opera House here claims to be the first such house to stage the show.

Based on an early 20th century novel by Roy Horniman called Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, the musical also borrows from the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” starring Alec Guinness.

The show opens with Lord Montague D’Ysquith (Ben Shimkus) writing his memoirs on the eve of his execution. The story then recalls the death of his mother, a washer-woman who was actually the member of an aristocratic family, though she was disowned after marrying a Spaniard. Montague is nevertheless ninth in the line to the Earldom.

“Monty” gets about getting close to each one standing in his way, starting with #8, then #7, then #6, and so on, each dying from unfortunate “accidents”–falling through the ice, falling off a roof, an attack of bees, a poisoning, and so on.

Each D’Ysquith is played deliciously by Brian P. Sage, who performs a dizzying number of off-stage costume changes as he becomes a boozy minister, a gay beekeeper, a society-lady adventurer. Sage’s turns in drag and as over-the-top gay is hilarious. The writing of this story, starting with Horniman’s novel and flowing through Robert Freedman’s book and lyrics is terrific British farce, which in one scene becomes a “doors” comedy with Monty’s toggling between two women, both of whom want to marry him, in two separate rooms of the house.

Mr. Shimkus plays the lead with solid, wily craft, performing his material and maintaining a subtle wink with the audience with an effective balance. But it is Mr. Sage who steals the show.

The music, by Steven Lutvak, does a splendid job of reflecting the sly comedic dagger wielding comedy of the story, and the Tibbits orchestra led by Lisa Lawrence delivers.

The Tibbits cast is well matched to this very funny material, and vocals are strong throughout. Hope Pauly as Monty’s distant cousin, Phoebe, and Jaclyn Collins as love interest Sibella Hallward are both lovely with top-notch vocals, and look very much home in Marc W. Vital II’s turn of the century (20th) costumes.

Director Charles Burr was fortunate to snag the rights to do “Gentleman’s Guide,” which is his strongest choice for this summer season, having already done “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Mixed Emotions”, neither of which seemed to be a good fit for his summer-stock cast.

Gentleman’s Guide is smart, yet a broad comedy that the entire Tibbits audience seemed to be eating with a spoon. How broad is the comedy? One of the funniest scenes and songs is between Monty and one of his victims, Henry D’Ysquith (played by Sage) on the surface singing about the special bond between men who are good friends on serious matters of life, “Better With a Man.” But the double entendre from Henry who is a gay fop is all too clear and terribly funny despite how some may view the depiction.

Gentleman’s Guide is a hoot, and has the benefit of also having a smart script. I literally heard one a pair of patrons leaving the show saying, “Now, that’s a great night out at the theatre.” I couldn’t agree more.

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