“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” came through Tulsa last week, and the variety of songs and characters helped illustrate why it won a Tony in 2014.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” was not a whodunit, but rather a who did it. The wildly popular and award-winning Broadway musical came to Tulsa last week to the delight of audiences.
The musical opens with a gruesome number foreshadowing the plot — a warning to audiences to avoid the play — but also foreshadows the tone of the music. While the lyrics suggested a gothic, murderous musical, the beat and instruments contrast wildly, more peppy and boisterous, a theme repeated throughout the show. This opening number also demonstrated the strength of the scenery to come; a digital back screen was used throughout much of the play and used well, effectively teleporting the audience to the location and mood of the scene.
From there, the play is performed in retrospect, as Monty, played by Blake Price, writes in his memoir the true accounts of how he became the Earl of Highhurst. Immediately, the scene switches to backstory, introducing Monty after his mother’s death, when Miss Shingle, played by Kristen Kane, comes to tell him that his mother was part of the D’Ysquith family, disinherited for marrying for love, a major theme of the play. Miss Shingle is the one who truly sets the events in motion; she plants the seed for Navarro’s following crimes.
Sibella Hallward, played by Colleen McLaughlin, also sets him on his path. When Monty goes to tell his upper-class mistress about his potential fortune, she dismisses him, singing the number “I Don’t Know What I’d Do.” In this number, Sibella comes across as a selfish social-climber, reminding me of Paris Hilton, but as the play progresses, she reveals an intuitive, honest side which Monty loves.
Deciding to use his new-found family to improve his station, he contacts Lord Asquith for a job. Rejected, he visits the Highhurst castle for a taste of his denied wealth, where the current Earl sings one of my favorite numbers, “I Don’t Understand the Poor.” While the musical set in 1907, the sentiment of the rich not sympathizing with the poor, seeing their station as a result of their poor choices, translates to modern times.
Monty tries the reverend of the family as a last-ditch effort; but he too looks down on Navarro’s mother, and when Monty is given a choice between saving the man and letting him fall off the church tower, he chooses the former, setting off a course of murders.
Slowly, the next seven heirs ahead of Monty die in “accidents” he engineers. Each death comes with a touch of comedy, some in the manner, some in Monty’s attempts and some in their interactions with Monty. All the heirs demonstrate themselves to be deserving of death, at least in Monty’s point of view, generally all look down on the lower class and Monty himself, comfortable in their rich lifestyle.
As these heirs die, Navarro’s life continues to improve in unforeseen ways. Lord Asquith, Sr. takes him on for a job, and he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes like a son to the Lord. Though Sibella gets married to a rich gentleman, she continues to be a part of Navarro’s life. While on a mission to kill another heir, he meets Phoebe D’Ysquith, a smart, book-loving woman. As she’s not in line for the earldom, he isn’t forced to contemplate her murder. His wardrobe improves as his wealth and status grows, a nice visual touch, and he also becomes more confident, especially in his dealings with Sibella.
One of the best songs, “I’ve Decided to Marry You” showcases his struggles between the two women, both literally and figuratively; Pheobe and Sibella are in opposite rooms, with Monty trying to keep them separated as Phoebe announces she’s decided to marry him and Sibella waits to leave after their most recent tryst. He loves each of them, and in the end, can balance them both.
At the start of the second act, with all the other heirs dead, Monty and Pheobe, now engaged, are invited to Highhurst with the current earl, along with Sibella. Throughout the night, he attempts to poison the earl, but without success. Somehow the earl still dies. For this death, Monty is charged with murder, and with that, the musical catches up to the present — Monty closes his memoir, letting the rest of the events play out as they will.
Suffice to say, there’s a few more songs as Monty’s guilt is decided and the aftermath. But the ending of the trial and the love triangle are both satisfying, even with the suspense.
One of the most amazing things about the play is that one actor plays every D’Ysquith heir, including the earl. Some of the costume changes were so quick I was astounded. He fully inhabited each character: the jittering, uncomfortably weird priest, Monty’s first kill, was a far cry from Lady Hycinyth, the society-lady hell-bent on charity work. Having the same actor for all the heirs added a bit more laughter, even when the changes were well-done.
The song selection varies from humorous to more serious. “Better With a Man” perhaps generated the most laughs; Monty sings this with Henry D’Ysquith, who is heavily implied to be gay. Lyrics alone, the subtext of the song plays into this gayness, with Monty flirting back, but the actions of the characters heighten the subtext — Henry must constantly excuse himself as he’s overwhelmed by Monty’s closeness. “The Last One You’d Expect,” which closes out the first act, is a reflection by multiple characters, from Lord Asquith to Pheobe, on how Monty has surpassed expectations to become what he is.
Even the serious songs have a drop of humor — “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” is sung demurely at Lord Asquith Sr’s funeral, bemoaning the recent tragic events to the family. Yet lines within the song suggest a mood other than sadness — “Why are all the D’Ysquiths dying / What a tasteless way of showing off” and “To lose one relative one can certainly forgive / But how can you excuse losing two / Or three or four or seven.”
Those were outstanding as well. Both Phoebe and Sibella had excellent soprano voices, and while Sibella’s may have been a touch lower, their similar voices, combined with their opposite wardrobes, emphasized they were two sides of the same coin and that Monty needed both to be completely happy. Altogether, the cast numbered only ten, but this fact was surprising at the end; it seemed at least twice as many were necessary for all that had transpired.
Since the musical will have left Tulsa by the time this article has been published, I would still recommend listening to the soundtrack; while watching the performance does add to the humor, the songs by themselves still carry weight. Overall, the musical was fantastically written and fantastically performed in Tulsa. The same group, Celebrity Attractions, that organized this musical will put on “Finding Neverland” in March and “The Sound of Music” in April.