Encore Michigan

Mason Street’s ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ lights up Saugatuck

Review August 18, 2019 Sue Merrell

SAUGATUCK — It isn’t often one finds a good old fashioned musical of melody and mayhem whisked into the twenty-first century with split-second timing and visual effects. That, my friends, is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,  which opened to roars of laughter and a standing ovation Friday at a packed Mason Street Warehouse.

The contrast between vaudeville staging one minute and the next a video backdrop of a bumble bee pursuit or a lethal fall keeps the audience spinning in this riotous romp.  

Inspired by a 1907 novel, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” and then the film “Kind hearts and Coronets,” based on the novel, the play is set in 1909 London. Our hero, Monty, discovers that his late mother was disinherited by the aristocratic D’ysquith family, and Monty is ninth in line to be Earl of Highhurst.  He hopes this change in status will be enough to win the fetching Sibella, but she says he won’t be earl until the eight others die, and how likely is that?

So, the quest is set. Any play that has the audience cheering for a serial killer, and actually laughing at his unlikely dastardly deeds, is a masterful piece of writing and storytelling.  In this case we can thank Robert L. Freedman for the witty tale and rhyming lyrics, with considerable help from Steven Lutvak whose music of the era sells the package.

To make the quest even more fun, all eight of the dying D’ysquiths, from the Earl to old maid Hyacinth to gay beekeeper Henry and several others,  are played by one talented actor: Harry Bouvy.  The characters are very different so the fact that one actor was playing all the parts didn’t even register at first.

Elliott Litherland takes command of the lead role as Monty. He has the expressive, comedic face that many of these lines require, and a strong singing voice for numerous solos and duets.  Equally important are Monty’s two lady loves: Sibella and Phoebe. Gina Milo is very convincing in Sibella’s difficult task of repeatedly dumping Monty and yet keeping the audience in her corner.  Katy Fay Francis is equally convincing as the aristocratic Phoebe who is the ideal spouse for an earl.  Both actresses have strong soprano voices for the operatic notes in some of these songs.

A half-dozen other talented actors complete the cast playing servants and lovers and even a wall of ancestors.

Set designer Jeremy Barnett has done an excellent job of creating an old London music hall set where the scenes happen on the stage but the story wanders off stage. He blends the sets with a video backdrop which is sometimes as routine as a fireplace and sometimes the center of the action. Chris Mahlmann is the talented projection designer.

Costumes by Darlene Veenstra complete the illusion of 1909. Music director Brendan Hollins and his small band do an amazing job of sounding like a full orchestra on the score.

A tiny misstep in the opening night production, when the curtain failed to close on one of the dead D’ysquiths, was quickly repaired at intermission and probably forgotten by the audience that was laughing too much to care. Director Kurt Stamm finishes the summer season with yet another winner.