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It's been 70 years since Kind Hearts and Coronets, based on Roy Horniman's Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, became a delightfully wicked vehicle for Alec Guinness, who was murdered multiple times during the film as he portrayed various members of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family – one of them female. Jefferson Mays drew similar kudos in 2013 when Horniman's novel was the source of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, with all of Guiness' D'Ascoynes discreetly converted into more singable D'Ysqiths – and featuring an additional lady among the slain. Lauded by the press, Gentleman's Guide didn't click at the box office until the TONY Award nominations were announced in the spring of 2014. When the show and its book by Robert L. Freedman won the TONYs, the victory bump carried into early 2015. But the run barely lasted into 2016, a full three months short of reaching the 1000-performance mark when it closed.
The touring version of Gentleman's Guide was all the more fresh when it opened at Knight Theater that same November, and the Charlotte audience welcomed it heartily. Directed by Tom Hollis, the current CPCC Summer Theatre version reminded me of the charms and shortcomings I saw in the original Broadway production while setting in bold relief a couple of the technical difficulties it overcame. Even though I had seen the show twice before, I was struck afresh by the artificiality of Freedman's concept, which decrees that our hero Monty D'Ysquith Navarro's recollections are staged under a proscenium within the Halton Theater proscenium at CPCC. Puzzling over why critics so adored this artificiality, I hadn't pondered why Freedman had insisted on it.
My best guess is that Freedman wished to double-underline the idea that we were watching a comedy as Monty murderously ploughed through most of the eight D'Ysquiths who stood in his path to becoming the next Earl of Highhurst. Before we even see Monty at his desk in prison, writing the confessional memoirs that will flash us back to the story of his crime spree, an ensemble dressed in funereal black advises us to depart immediately if we don't have the stomach for the carnage to come. Whether intentionally or not, Hollis further shields us from the notion that Monty is a heartless murderer, aided chiefly by Kevin Roberge playing all the D'Ysquiths that Monty knocks off.
Roberge made them less eccentric, less broadly comical, maybe a tad meaner, and worthier of extermination. Touches of the original comedy remained when he was Henry D'Ysquith, the beekeeping squire, and in the denouement where Lord Adelbert, the present Earl of Highhurst, was poisoned. But there was less marital shtick between Asquith and his wife, Lady Eugenia, at that climactic banquet, and Roberge got less comedy mileage out of the women he portrayed, the crusading Lady Hyacinth and actress Lady Salome. Maybe the blame should be spread to costume designer Robert Croghan and wig designer Barbi Van Schaick for failing to outfit Roberge with more outré femininity, though I'd be lying if I said there was abundant treble or prissiness in Hyancinth or Salome's voices. The fakey whiskers and mustaches that Roberge wore and discarded further damaged the aura of his versatility.
Audience members unfamiliar with the exploits of Guinness and Mays were likely to come away with a better impression of Roberge's work than mine, but no such concessions were necessary on the love side of the action. In his third substantial role of the 2019 CP Summer season, Ashton Guthrie proved that he could ease us from Monty's initial innocence to his ultimate roguishness while sustaining his appeal. Without those horrid mustaches, Roberge might have been more winsome in Adelbert's "I Don't Understand the Poor" than Monty was singing "Poison in My Pocket," but Guthrie flipped my previous preference.
When Monty's eyes are opened to his noble pedigree, his innocence is more than slightly eclipsed by his rapacious and romantic instincts. During this transition, two contrasting women whet Monty's ambitions while humanizing him. Emily Witte as Sibella Hallward is the stylish social-climber who appeals to Monty's eyes and loins, while Karley Kornegay as Phoebe D'Ysquith appeals to his heart, mind, and bank balance. Apart from a woefully floppy wig when she first appears, Croghan and Van Schaick were consistently inspired by Witte, but compared with the regalia they whipped up for her Jekyll & Hyde four weeks earlier, they consistently let Kornegay down.
No such disparity was evident when Witte and Kornegay plied their respective charms or sang their songs, and Guthrie's reactions beguiled us into believing that Sibella and Phoebe are exquisitely balanced in Monty's eyes. All three collaborated brilliantly in the farcical "I've Decided to Marry You" scene in which Monty entertains both of his ladies simultaneously at his bachelor pad in two rooms that face the same foyer. The synchronicity of this trio, obviously well rehearsed, was quite delectable, though Croghan's mini-set seemed shaky in surviving the door-slamming abuse.
What really took its toll on Witte's and Kornegay's performances was the sound system. Perhaps because of the effect that the proscenium-within-the-proscenium set had on the Halton's acoustics, sound designer Stephen Lancaster couldn't deliver the admirable clarity we had heard there earlier this season. Ensembles were consistently garbled, and so were the higher voices. The swifter and cleverer the women's lyrics became, the more apt they were to succumb to distortion, penalizing Witte slightly more since Sibella has a bit more Gilbert and Sullivan flowing in her veins.
Hollis has managed to stage all this artificial mayhem with a cast of 10, two fewer than performed on Broadway. Only two that haven't been mentioned get to sing outside their ensemble assignments, and both have shining cameos. Among multiple roles, Allison Rhinehardt was eccentricity personified as Miss Shingle, the mysterious family acquaintance who divulges Monty's lineage after his mother's death in "You're a D'Ysquith." Lucianne Hamilton was more briefly in the spotlight as Miss Barley, Asquith Jr.'s mistress until their unfortunate skating accident.
Of course, the Halton audience lapped up each of the artful murders. Yet the script and the production struck me as overly worried about whether we would properly digest the D'Ysquiths' brutally unjust fates. Justice is too often miscarried in fiction and in life to have such scruples. Frankly, Horniman's storyline fortifies the ambivalence that Americans already have toward the wealthy and the wellborn. We blithely allow them to get away with rape and murder while hating them to the bone.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder continues through Saturday, July 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.