Though it’s based on a book that was written over 100 years ago, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now playing at the Public Theater of San Antonio, is as fresh and funny as if it were written yesterday. Cinema aficionados may also recognize its storyline from Kind Hearts and Coronets, the classic 1949 black comedy starring Alec Guinness.
When Gentleman’s Guide opens, we find Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst, languishing in prison. He informs us that he is writing his memoirs on the eve of his possible execution, and suggests that his story might just as well be called “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Thus it begins…
The year is 1907. Here known merely as Monty Navarro, the young man is living in a miserable flat in Clapham, having just returned from the funeral of his washerwoman mother. He is bereft, but a friend of the family, Miss Shingles, arrives with startling news. Monty is actually a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family.
His mother, Isobel, had eloped with a Castilian musician and was subsequently disowned. She’d never revealed her true heritage to young Monty, and they lived a life of abject poverty. Now is the time, Miss Shingles says, for the young man to step up and claim his rightful place in the family, as he is ninth in succession to inherit the Earldom.
But how can he help to speed things along to get at his inheritance? Therein lies the tale.
This Tony award-winning musical, written and composed by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, could scarcely be bettered. Freedman’s slyly devious book is complemented by Lutvak’s solid score, which features such upbeat(!) numbers as “Poison in My Pocket” and “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”
And in this incarnation, the Public Theater is more than up to the task of bringing this delightfully dark show to the stage.
Tim Hedgepeth’s direction is energetic, with just the right amount of camp, and squeezes every drop of morbid humor out of the story. Musical director Jane Haas’s orchestra is first-rate, as are Paige Berry’s lively choreography and Elisa Bierschenk’s sumptuous costumes. The scenic design by Sandra Lopez, cleverly combining props and projections, is solidly supported by Dan “Doc” Heggem’s lighting and Jesse Worley’s sound design.
The cast is also sensational. Chaz Ingraham makes a slick and subversive Monty. Natalie Buster is hilarious as the eccentric Miss Shingles, while Emily Owens Evans and Mary Malaney shine as Sibella and Phoebe, the women in Monty’s life. Portraying various supporting characters in the piece, the Public’s ensemble displays its usual excellence.
A special shout-out must go to Andy Meyers, who plays all the members of the D’Ysquith family — male and female alike. In the best English music hall tradition, he speeds through multiple costume changes, accents and behaviors with riotous aplomb.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Feb. 23 at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Pl. Reservations can be made online or by calling the box office at (210) 733-7258.
Feature photo: Andy Meyers as one of the D’Ysquiths (Siggi Ragnar).