Porchlight Music Theatre’s relocation to the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, where the company became a resident in 2018, may not be the direct cause of its current surge in quality. But the two certainly correlate. Between last fall’s revelatory revival of the classic musical “Gypsy,” starring E. Faye Butler, and its sparkling Chicago premiere of the more recent Broadway tuner “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” Ruth Page has hosted what might be Porchlight’s most polished and confident back-to-back productions in the 17 years I’ve been seeing them.
‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’ ★★★★ When: Through March 16 Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Tickets: $39 – $66 Info: porchlightmusictheatre.org Run time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that both shows are top-notch material. “Gypsy” is upper-echelon musical theater canon, a showbiz story from the minds of Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and a young Stephen Sondheim, and was a passion project for Butler, one of Chicago’s top acting talents, who saw its central figure Mama Rose as musical theater’s King Lear.
“Gentleman’s Guide,” though it delivers plenty of the murder promised by its title, is lower in stakes — if “Gypsy” is Shakespeare, “Guide” is Gilbert & Sullivan. But this genially dark comedy, the winner of the 2014 Tony Award for best musical, is also joyfully witty, expertly goofy and among the most literate new shows to hit the Great White Way in recent years.
Written by Broadway first-timers Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, “Gentleman’s Guide” is set in Edwardian England, and uses the musical idioms of its period — operetta and music-hall — to tell the murderous tale of Monty Navarro. A Dickensian striver, Monty learns upon his mother’s death that she was a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family (pronounced die-squith).
Monty’s mother, he’s told by an old friend of hers who shows up at his doorstep, was disowned by her relations for daring to marry for love; Monty’s father, a Castilian, was deemed beneath his mother’s station.
What’s more, Monty learns, his D’Ysquith lineage makes him ninth in the line of succession to become the next Earl of Highhurst. This is uncharted territory for Monty, who’s in danger of losing his beloved, Sibella, who takes a more transactional view of marriage than Monty’s mom. Rudely rebuffed by the first D’Ysquith to whom he reaches out, Monty allows a bloodthirsty resentment to take hold in his mind.
As he sets out to dispose of the D’Ysquiths who stand between him and the earldom, Monty finds his distant relations bear a preternatural family resemblance. The gag, as the show’s marketing materials make clear, is that all eight present-and-accounted-for members of the D’Ysquith family are played by the same actor.
Freedman and Lutvak borrow this conceit from the 1949 British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a separate adaptation of the 1907 novel that also inspires “Gentleman’s Guide.” In the movie, Alec Guinness portrayed all of the related targets of the protagonist; the musical ups the ante with live-theater quick changes, and an extra helping or two (or three) of camp.
The Broadway staging of “Gentleman’s Guide” (which earned more Tony nominations than any other show in the 2013–14 season, and won for its book, direction and costume design in addition to best musical) had a winningly cartoonish quality — more Jay Ward than Walt Disney. (Chicago audiences might have seen this version when the touring production launched at what’s now the CIBC Theatre in 2015.)
Director and choreographer Stephen Schellhardt’s Porchlight production maintains that gently subversive, satirical bite but feels slightly more grounded than those prior versions. Some of that is literal: the Ruth Page Center’s smallish stage and limited wing space force scenic designer Angela Weber Miller to get charmingly creative for some of Lutvak and Freedman’s sillier set pieces. Costume designer Jeff Hendry’s lux threads, on the other hand, are among the poshest I’ve seen Porchlight produce.
Matthew Crowle puts his lanky frame and rubber face to satisfying use here as the various members of the D’Ysquith family, bringing his own fresh and funny spin to the role(s) created by Tony nominee Jefferson Mays.
But in contrast to the Broadway and touring casts, I’d say these D’Ysquiths take a backseat to their murderous cousin. Andrés Enriquez, an actor I’ve seen in various ensemble roles around the city in recent years, shows up here with what ought to be a breakout leading performance as Monty: assured, urbane, engaging and remarkably well-sung.
The gentleman’s ladies are no slouches, either; Emily Goldberg as Sibella and Ann Delaney as Monty’s new potential love interest both threaten to steal the show — and then Sharriese Hamilton walks away with an entire comic scene as the combative wife of the current Earl of Highhurst (Crowle again, who nearly lost his cool opposite Hamilton’s hijinks on opening night).
A smartly funny lark, produced by a Porchlight at the top of its game? Here’s your guide: Get your tickets while you can.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.