Review: Otterbein Returns To The Stage With Jubilant ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
After over a year where they successfully pivoted toward streaming – including a delightful Kurt Weill cabaret among other highlights – Otterbein University’s theater department returns to its home in Cowan Hall this weekend with a lively, engaging staged concert of Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak’s (music and lyrics) Tony-winning farce A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, directed by Thom Christopher Warren with music direction by Lori Kay Harvey.
Set in 1907, the play follows Montague “Monty” Navarro’s (Will Anthony Saygers) efforts to exact revenge for his dead mother and claim his place in the D’Ysquith family by eliminating all other heirs (all played by Ryan Esparza) while juggling a love triangle completed by Sibella (Brooke Pamela Nagel), who intermittently returns his affections and the more steadfast ardor of his cousin Pheobe D’Ysquith (Amelia Elia).
Monty is a demanding role that shoulders much of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Saygers rises to its heights (and the character’s dastardly lows) without breaking a sweat. His appealing, clear tenor gives the character the kind of polish he needs to make us believe he fits in society once he’s elbowed (sawed, bludgeoned, poisoned) his way there. The glint in his eye leaves no doubt the character can not only kill, he’ll also enjoy it.
Esparza has a field day with the antic, cartoony energy of the piece, always pitched to 11, a bottle rocket rattling around a tin can. There are a few missteps, the portrayal drifts into grating with the final D’Ysquith, Lord Adalbert, in the climactic dinner party sequence, but he generally dazzles. Because this is a staged concert, they eschew the more lavish sets for which Otterbein is known. Still, Edith D. Wadkins’ subtle intimations perfectly ground the technicolor hijinks, and Rob Johnson’s projections go a long way, especially interacting with Esparza in a hilarious sequence where one of his characters meets a tragic, lavender-scented end.
Nagel and Elias make the triangle come to life, with compelling chemistry with one another as well as Saygers. Nagel singes eyebrows off with sharp readings of songs like “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You” and” and “Poor Monty.” Elias conjures a surprising level of sweetness and charm with her duet with Saygers, “Inside Out.” Monty’s chemistry with Miss Shingle, a scene-stealing Nijah Dent, not only sets the plot in motion but leaves a reverberating impression for the few scenes they share.
Warren and his cast use the reduced stage area of the staged concert format extremely effectively, echoing the stifling ambiance of early 20th century London’s social scene. Esparza and Elias both have interesting moments weaving around the orchestra. The show’s centerpiece, a door-slamming dance where Monty has to keep Sibella and Phoebe both at bay, crackles in a tighter space.
The large remainder of the cast slip from Greek chorus to swarm of British life, making the world of the play more three-dimensional. Every one of them should be commended as they fill in and punctuate not only the music, but execute one jaw-dropping sight gag after another. Frequently there’s so much happening, so many places to look, I completely forgot we were watching a version with more limited staging. Similarly, Lori Kay Harvey not only leading the chorus from a center-stage piano but breaking the fourth wall contribute to the action added a delightful touch I wasn’t expecting; there’s almost a winking Regis Philbin to Saygers’ Joey Bishop energy when the two of them interact.
Occasionally, I’ve seen a show in multiple productions that feels a little stronger with students. It was a surprise and delight – it wouldn’t have occurred to me before – to find A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder fit that bill. The energy, the earnestness, and the joy of that cast finding their way both mirrored (in a gentler fashion) Monty Narvarro’s climb into society and highlighted the dazzling feats of slapstick and song.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through September 25 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, September 19. For tickets and more info, visit otterbein.edu.