This was not my first visit to The Old Log Theatre, I have been going there annually for close to 20 years. It was however my first non-kid-centric production and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The yearly Christmas shows that I had been attending with some combination of children or grandchild were always fun affairs if a little underwhelming. Though truth be told, several of the productions in the last few years seemed to have raised the bar a bit. Well, I was not disappointed in the quality of the production or the cast. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder as a show is a superior musical comedy, Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak, the show won 4 Tony awards in 2014 including Best Musical and Best Book. Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a criminal by Roy Horniman. This novel was also the basis for the 1949 British Film from the Ealing Studios Kind Hearts and Coronets, which I am very fond of. Clearly taking a queue from that film in which Alec Guinness played nine separate members of an upper class family, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder also casts one actor, David Beukema, in just as many roles.
The musical begins with a warning to the audience that it is about murder and suggests that if you are of a weaker constitution you might want to leave before it starts. We then meet Monty Navarro who is writing his memoirs in prison while he awaits the ruling in his murder trial. The rest is basically a flashback. Beginning when Monty, after returning from the funeral of his mother is informed by an old friend of hers that he is actually a member of the wealthy D’Ysquith family. In fact, it turns out he is Ninth in line to be the Earl of Highhurst. His mother was disinherited and forever rejected by the family for eloping with his father whom she loved despite being beneath her in the families eyes. After his father died when he was seven, his mother and he scraped by as best they could. Letters he finds confirms that she tried repeatedly to reach out to her family for help, all of which were returned without assistance. When his attempts to reach out to his newly discovered family are rebuked, and faced with the realization that the woman he loves, Sibella will never marry him as he is not rich or have any real prospects, he hits upon the idea of shortening the line of succession, by killing off the members ahead of him. The rest of the show concerns itself with the murders of the eight family members ahead of him in line for the Earldom. Adding yet another layer is his engagement to Phoebe, the Widow of one of his earlier victims, which occurs with Sibella, now his married mistress in the other room.
Max Wojtanowicz who plays Monty is well cast. The role requires a performer that can win over the audience despite committing what, when you think about it, are some truly horrible acts. He has a good singing voice and the perfect body language to convey the almost straight man reactions to the D’Ysquith family. Speaking of the D’Ysquith family, David Beukema absolutely nails each of his nine roles. Assisted by Costumes, he finds ways to make each member of the family unique and amusing in their own ways. This is a tour-de-force of comic acting, each character distinct. One’s mind boggles at the speed of costume changes that must be occurring back stage. One of my favorite songs in the show was a duet between Wojtanowicz and Beukema “Better With a Man” It perfectly blends the wit and humor of the lyrics with the comic blocking of the action, keying into the performers reactions to each other. Both actresses Emily Scinto (Sibella) and Elizabeth Hawkinson (Phoebe) are lovely in their parts with beautiful singing voices. They share a scene with Wojtanowicz involving a set of doors and the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You” that involves split second timing on the part of all three performers which is another highlight of the show. One other performer that really caught my attention was Suzie Juul in her role of Lady Eugenia, the interaction between that character and Beukema as her husband Lord Adalbert are fantastic in their caustic mutual loathing.
The show as directed by Eric Morris is fast paced with not a swing wasted as we chop our way through the D’Ysquith family tree. The set is changed by the drawing of curtains and the rolling on and off of various pieces. All of the frequent transitions are handled smoothly, moving between scenes fluidly and without drawing attention to them. We are never left at a loss for where a scene is taking place or have the feeling there is more on stage than there needs to be. It’s a very clean and effective design. There were some interesting uses of fabric and lighting to convey scenes that could have been challenging. When a character falls to his death, his fall and landing are suggesting mainly through lighting. When a couple falls through the ice on a lake we see them struggling underwater silhouetted behind a sheet. Clever ways in which to capture these visual moments. There are also some very clever costume and prop designs, a rifle with a ever elongating barrel, a bee keepers hat, and the head of a Major are just a few examples of the inventive work being done in those departments.
This is a show full humor, filled with witty and catchy songs. The Old Log has mounted an impressive production. Including a masterclass in comic acting from David Beukema in nine separate roles and Max Wojtanowicz as the perfect sympathetic murderer. Perfectly complimenting each other Beukema creating the characters and Wojtanowicz reacting to them. You are not going to beat this for entertainment, it’s about some dark themes but it’s appropriate for teens and Grandma alike. Tickets can be purchased at the Old Log’s website http://oldlog.com/ The show runs through February 15 2020. Plenty of time to take it in, but don’t let this one slip your mind. Go early in it’s run, you may just want to take it in again before it closes.