The musical is called “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” but an alternate title could be “Murder Most Fun.”
The 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Musical does feature killing — quite a lot of it, actually. But those presenting the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre production beginning May 16 emphasize how enjoyable it has been for them — and they expect it will be for the audience as well.
Jeffrey Peterson, who plays the murderous Monty Navarro, said he jumped at the chance to work on it.
“Personally, I knew this show when it first hit Broadway in 2014, and I’ve loved it ever since,” he said. “It’s so fun, and I just really, really wanted to have the opportunity to be a part of it.”
Set in Great Britain, Monty, a penniless clerk, finds out he’s ninth in line to inherit an earldom controlled by the wealthy D’Ysquith banking family. In other words, for him to gain this lucrative title, something unfortunate would have to befall his eight relatives. As a matter of fact ...
Monty personifies the production’s title, which is why Peterson is so excited to play him.
“He’s a very fun character,” Peterson said. “He’s very two-sided. It’s love and murder. So one side of him is very dashing and charming, and the other side is murdering people. It’s fun to play both of those sides.”
The production finds laughs with a potentially grim subject, according to the show’s director.
“It’s a comedy, and it has more to do with the British music hall flavor of the show, the Monty Python flavor of the show, and not about the fact that he, in some respects, accidentally, bumps off all of his cousins,” Wayne Marek said.
Eight is more than enough
In one of the show’s creative flourishes, all eight of the tragedy stricken D’Ysquith (pronounced, appropriately, DIES-quith) heirs are played by one actor. Asked what that role requires, Marek laughed.
“A great deal of flexibility, because they’re playing a number of different characters,” he said. “The one male actor is playing characters of different ages, some different accents, two of the characters that he plays are female. You need versatility, flexibility, can do different accents, different voices. I would say a lot of lines and songs to memorize, all of the quick costume changes.”
Eau Claire Children’s Theatre veteran Joe Burger steps into the eight pairs of shoes.
“I was looking for the challenge,” Burger said. “I’ve been in well over 50 shows with the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre. I’ve played a multitude of different characters, and to be able to kind of flex my muscles, so to speak, with eight different characters on stage has been a fun challenge. Certainly not easy, but fun nonetheless.”
Burger said his goal is to show the audience the characters are eight “very specific, different people.”
“They might all be related, they might look a little similar, but they each have a different voice, they each have a different personality,” he said.
Peterson also has no easy task, Marek pointed out.
“Just as many lines, a large number of songs,” he said. “Those characters really have to carry the show.”
For his part, Burger noted that all cast members have to be on their game.
“With the chorus members, they each handle four to six different characters,” he said. “Whether they say lines or not, it’s some kind of challenge. And then the supporting leads, their characters in and of themselves have multifaceted personalities. They start somewhere in the show and end in a completely different spot. So there’s no one-dimensional aspect, although the humor is often silly and one-dimensional and sometimes cartoonish.”
Allie Kangas, who plays the role of Sibella Hallward, said she auditioned because she enjoys the show and because it allows her to stretch vocally.
“I’m usually one to go for belty roles rather than soprano operatic style, which is what this is,” she said. “It’s more of a classical style. And so I’ve really wanted the challenge of having that.”
That’s not all.
“And I’ve also never done a mezzo-soprano part, so I have to sing the harmony part for pretty much every song, and so that’s a bit of a challenge as well.”
Kangas also is a costumer for the production.
Jackson Liedl, who plays a supporting role, said the small cast and significant acting hurdles got him into his Children’s Theatre debut as Man 2.
“Whether you get a lead or a supporting role, there’s a lot of different characters to play,” he said. “I thought it would be a fun time.”
While the cast is being kept busy, the audience should find the time flies by too.
“It’s very quick moving,” said Amber Richards, who plays the role of Phoebe D’Ysquith. “No one will get bored.”
“It’s a very fast-paced show,” he said. “It jumps from one song to the next, from one scene to the next very quickly. There’s a lot of murders to get through so it has to go fast.”
Burger pointed out that makes it even more fun for viewers.
“I think for any audience member it’s more fun to see a show that is nonstop,” he said. “With a small cast it might put a little more weight on our shoulders to keep that pace going, but that’s half the fun is being able to keep up with whatever’s going on on stage.”
Some reviewers have noted superficial similarities to another Tony Award-winning musical: Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” But those working on this production reject that comparison.
As Marek said, the two shows share a British setting and a body count, but that’s about it.
“There’s fun to (“Sweeney Todd”), but it’s also very dark ...” he said. “And this is not dark in any way. It’s just a lot of fun, the music is very clever, a lot of patter songs, some beautiful ballads. Great music score and the story, I think, is very engaging because people are waiting to see the next way that (Monty) dispatches someone.”
Laura Robbins-Leisz, who plays Miss Marietta Shingle, agreed part of the fun comes from the songs themselves.
“Reminds me a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan with a lot of the patter type songs,” she said. “A lot of the songs are very fast and very wordy and really fun. I’m just having the best time in this show. It is a lot of fun with a lot of fun characters.”
For this show’s rating, the consensus seemed to be PG-13.
As Richards noted, “My two oldest children are 9 and 11, and I will definitely let them watch the show. They’re also theater kids so I think they can appreciate it a little bit more.”
Scheduling “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” fits with the Children’s Theatre’s longtime practice of providing experiences for the entire family over an entire season, Marek said. That means staging something occasionally for more mature theatergoers in addition to their many productions for the younger set.
“Every season we have one or two shows that are mainly adult shows for adults actors,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the adult actors to stretch and also to broaden the experience of our audience. So we do things like ‘Rocky Horror (Picture Show),’ like this show and any number of a little bit more adult shows for the benefit of our performers and our audience members.”
Those who got an early look at the Children’s Theatre’s 2018-19 schedule may have noted “A Gentleman’s Guide” now is scheduled for different dates than what was previously publicized. Marek said that shift came about because of a schedule change at Pablo Center.
Asked what he would tell the uninitiated about the show, Burger said he would confidently predict they will thoroughly enjoy it.
“I think it’s worth the risk,” he said. “This is one of those prime examples where, yes, it won the Tony for best musical, but not a lot of people know about it … It’s worth coming and checking and trying something new because I guarantee you are going to laugh, you are going to find something enjoyable, you will find a character among the, whatever, 50 characters portrayed by 11 people. You’re going to find somebody that you’re going to attach to.”
Even though, he might have added, something humorously tragic happens to them.