Review: 'Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder' is a Powerhouse Display of Seemingly Limitless Talent

Every now and then there’s an opportunity to see a performer at the top of their game—the perfect role at the right time that showcases the fullness of their talents and skills—and it’s a joy beyond measure to be in the room with someone having the time of their life, who in so doing gives you the time of your life.

That rare occasion is happening now, at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, with Jeremy Koch playing very nearly more characters than one can track, each with a distinct voice, physicality, and costume—one more outrageously funny and peculiar than the last—in their 15th anniversary season opener “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

It’s a delightful show (winning Tony Awards in 2014 for book, direction, costume design as well as best musical) brought to life here with terrific attention detail from a truly fine ensemble cast and creative design team under direction from Kathy Mulay.

Written by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak and based on the 1949 British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” adapted from a 1907 novel, this subversive, Edwardian tale focuses on humble and demure Monty Navarro who has discovered upon his dear mother’s death that he is actually an heir to to the D’Ysquith fortune, and ninth in line to become an earl. Part vengeance for his mother’s banishment, part desire to win the full favor of his social-climbing beloved, the stakes are high for the charmingly conniving Navarro. Knock off a mere eight stiff-upper lipped relatives who never knew him, and he’ll have it made. But serial killing isn’t as easy as it seems, nor is keeping two high-maintenance mistresses happy amid knocking people off.

It is a narrative ripe for ridiculousness and with a wonderfully clever score and lyrics, this operetta cum farce, though also a kooky killing spree, is utterly gentlemanly, not at all gruesome, and is a wickedly smart, gorgeous period piece that delightfully satirizes colonialism. It’s smart, laugh-out-loud funny, and terrifically entertaining.

And not just because of Koch’s tour de force performance, in which he bicycles, bee keeps, ice skates, and gallops through the creation of at least eight enormous characters of various genders, but because every artist involved in this show is also bringing their all to the table.

Elliott Litherland reprises the role of Monty Navarro from Mason Street Warehouse’s fine 2019 production, and his talents match those of Koch in every way. This role is a perfect fit for his dashing good looks reminiscent of a young Clive Owen and he comes off as so utterly adorable even while simultaneously being manipulative and sinister that we can’t help but root for this sociopath in his killing spree (which, ultimately, is so cleverly drawn and visually hilarious if not nonviolent, that it’s not inappropriate for children to watch). Though he plays a singular character, his acrobatics to keep the scenes churning and the narrative moving, are impressive.

As are performances by his leading ladies. Becca Andrews is a phenomenal Sibella, a gorgeous vision in pink as well as a stupendously gifted comedienne and singer. She, too, manages to create a paradoxical character with aplomb: wickedly narcissistic and yet sweetly appealing, she has such palpable chemistry with Litherland there’s no question about the motives for his desire. And Natalie Duncan’s Phoebe D’Ysquith plays a fine third in this love triangle, with an especially excellent soprano. The three make magic with their harmonies in “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”

In addition to the four primary powerhouse performances, six ensemble members are seemingly limitless in their talents to create tourists, wedding guests, servants, law enforcement officials, maids, and on and on, with particularly notable performances from Lori Moore as Miss Shingle and Meredith Mancuso as Lady Eugenia.

Not to diminish the fact that this is a musical on top of all the tremendous character work, the whimsical score sounds marvelous thanks to Chris Gray’s musical direction and the 8-piece orchestra he conducts in addition to the vocal talents of the cast.

And to make this enormous show effectively translate to the intimate Farmers Alley space, the design team also brought their A-game. From Eric Perry’s scenic design that creates a proscenium within a proscenium within a proscenium and provides for some very funny slamming doors in what is ultimately a wildly complex British farce; to Christopher Mahlmann’s projections that beautifully create locales far and wide (from exteriors to interiors and cathedral to castle to English garden to India, Africa, and beyond); to Neil Jansen’s sound design that includes carefully-placed boings and whistles and other comedic delights; to Savannah Draper’s equally laughter-inducing sight-gag props; to Kathy Mulay’s exquisitely lush costumes based on Linda Cho’s original designs, every choice contributes to the uncompromising success of this production.

This show was nearly sold out before it opened Friday night, and those fortunate enough to hold tickets are in for a night of theatre they’ll not soon forget. With their magnificent “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Farmers Alley offers the kind of joyful, artful entertainment that has not only put them on the map of professional theaters in West Michigan, but has given them staying power for 15 years—with plenty more to come.

Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Farmers Alley Theatre
Sept. 23-Oct. 16