Hoopla

Theatre Cedar Rapids stages farcical 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder' Feb. 7 to 23

Montague #x201c;Monty#x201d; Navarro (Mic Evans) goes to extreme lengths to become the man Sibella Hallward (Jordan Arno
Montague “Monty” Navarro (Mic Evans) goes to extreme lengths to become the man Sibella Hallward (Jordan Arnold) desires in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” onstage Feb. 7 to 23 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Studio Reserved)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” coming to the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage Feb. 7 to 23, may very well be the model of a modern major musical.

It’s an operetta in which eight members of an aristocratic Edwardian English family get done in one by one, so their long-lost relative can mount his high-horse and become Earl of Highhurst.

How else can a penniless clerk win the hand of a lovely maiden with dollar signs in her eyes?

The madcap musical, which won four Tony Awards in 2014, including best musical and best book, is like serial killer “Dexter” meeting “Downton Abbey” in “Noises Off,” said Mic Evans, 25, of Cedar Rapids, who plays cunning killer Montague “Monty” Navarro.

“It’s got that physical slapstick humor,” he said, “but it’s all under that umbrella of the Edwardian period. So it’s funny and it’s murders ... and it’s a musical.”

“The music is that operetta style — very Gilbert and Sullivan — which offers a lot of opportunity for that classic musical feel, but in a super-modern way,” added Aaron Murphy, 36, of Cedar Rapids, who plays nearly every member of the doomed D’Ysquith (dies-kwith) family.

That means he’ll be in perpetual motion, running hither and yon entering and exiting as men and women of various ages, vocations and avocations — flinging costumes off and on in 20 or 30 seconds sometimes — all in a carefully choreographed dance backstage.

“I am basically running, panting, heaving and changing costumes like a mad man — or woman,” he said. “It’s absolutely wild. We actually ran the Act One last night, and it just kind of hit me that there’s not a lot of opportunity to re-center and then go back out. The hat comes off, the next hat goes on, and you’ve got to be completely different from what the audience just saw. As an actor, we relish that kind of stuff. That is the meat and potatoes of the job.”

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His quick changes will involve “a lot of zippers and two dedicated dressers,” TCR costume designer Joni Sackett said. Jayna Shetterly and Kelly Shriver Kolln will be backstage for every dress rehearsal and every performance, making sure Murphy enters as the proper character.

Sackett rented Murphy’s costumes from the Des Moines Community Playhouse, giving a standing ovation to the work of designer Angela Lampe.

“She did any amazing job with jumpsuits,” Sackett said. “Most of things, except jackets and hats, are all in one piece. It’s genius.”

Ensemble members have quick changes, too, as they portray mourners, maids, tourists, newsboys, skaters, flower girls, bridesmaids and even pieces of art. Their transformations may involve simply changing a vest or hat or adding glasses to “pretend-make them into a different person,” Sackett said.

Even with using some rental pieces, she still enlisted the services of four wig designers, a milliner to make hats, and a dozen others to help with costume construction.

This level of madness and mayhem will require audiences to “just open themselves to the silliness of it and just enjoy it,” Sackett said. “It’s such a goofy show. It’s just a blast.”

The D’Ysquiths are just your “typical turn-of-the-century, big-money family,” Murphy said. “It’s a relatively large family and they’ve all done different things with their wealth.”

Most of the characters are cousins, which works in an actor’s favor.

“They’re all around the same age, so it’s a little bit easier for one person to play them all,” Murphy said. “It’s easier to age yourself up than it is down.”

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And because they’re all “antiheroes,” it’s easier for audiences to accept their deaths.

“It’s tragic that they all get murdered in different and comedic ways, but they’re also just terrible people,” Murphy said.

“No one is a good person in this show,” Evans added.

Certainly not his character, who is hoping at first, to get some money or at least a job out of his birthright.

“And then it just kind of snowballs,” Evans said, as Monty sees the only way to win his sweetheart’s heart is to make his cutthroat way up the line of succession to claim the earldom.

“He’s a very unlikely antihero. I’ll put it that way,” Evans said, “because he’s not really a hero. He kills people, but he should not be in these situations. He’s unlikely — he’s just your average Joe. Aside from his heart and his ability to charm people, he doesn’t have much going for him. But he’s in the right place at the right time — over and over and over.”

Still, “the audience has to give themselves permission to laugh at murder,” said Janelle Lauer, the show’s musical director, adding that it’s a feeling of “I shouldn’t be laughing at this, but I can’t help myself.”

“Fortunately, they’re not gruesome, horrific, gory deaths,” Murphy noted.

And while the action is fast-paced, not all of the laughs spring from over-the-top moments of outrageous hilarity. Some come from more wink, wink, nudge, nudge knowing looks that help break down the fourth wall between audience and actors.

“For a show that’s not subtle, it is nuanced,” Evans pointed out, and the people who catch those subtleties will send ripples of laughter through the audience. Less-subtle moments will trigger “outbursts and giggles,” Murphy chimed in.

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“There’s nothing that’s not farce or satire,” Evans said. “We’re gonna obliterate that fourth wall at times.

“It’s the most unexpected show,” he added, “because you walk in and you think it’s that British farce and it’s gonna be stuffy. And then it’s the most relatable and funny and modern thing.”

It’s a “bucket list” show for Evans, Murphy and Lauer.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for a small cast to really stretch (and) flex their muscles,” said Murphy, who has just stepped out of another huge role, playing mean Miss Agatha Trunchbull in the theater’s holiday production of “Matilda.” He also played a Brit in the iconic role of Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” at TCR.

Evans crawled out of the darkness of Renfield in “Dracula” and Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to step into this lighter, yet macabre role.

“Of musicals that have been written recently, it is easily my favorite book of a musical I’ve hopped into,” he said. “Sometimes you get into a musical and the songs are the focus. You say five lines, then there’s another song. And this book is a Swiss watch. If one thing is off, it will fall apart. But it’s so well-written that it’s hard to get off focus. The music ties into the lines in a way that I have not encountered.”

When Lauer heard TCR was planning to do this show, she immediately tossed her hat into the ring, “because it’s smart humor,” she said.

“It is hilarious. It is unlike any show that’s out there. It is not conventional — it is ridiculous. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Get out!

What: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”

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Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE

When: Feb. 7 to 23; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $22 to $45; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org

Extra: ASL interpreted performance Feb. 21

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