CEDAR RAPIDS — “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is one of the silliest, most difficult, dizzying shows to hit the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage, where it’s slaying and staying through Feb. 23.
Audiences who take a chance on this new musical are going to love it to death.
Winner of four 2014 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical, it’s a tour de force for everyone who steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight — as well as those who live in the shadows, making the fast-paced action look and sound so bloody good.
Set in England during the very prim and proper Edwardian period, not too many people in this killer comedy are prim and proper.
The action begins with a mourners’ chorus warning the audience that if you don’t have the constitution for what you’re about to see, just go home.
Montague “Monty” Navarro (Mic Evans) is sitting in his jail cell in 1909, writing his memoirs during what could be his final hours. Then the action rewinds to the day he buried his mother, Isobel. Shortly after returning to his dingy flat, in swoops mysterious Miss Marietta Shingle (Nadine Borngraeber), who knows what’s what with his mum’s tragic tale.
It seems Isobel actually was a blue-blooded D’Ysquith (dies-kwith). Alas, she (gasp) married for love, eloping with a Spanish musician, thereby incurring the wrath of her family. Disinherited, she was forced to her knees as a washerwoman, never telling her ensuing son of his noble lineage.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, the penniless Monty seeks out his family, but his attempts to cozy-up to his D’Ysquith kin fail. He has to lay claim to his birthright and fortune if he’s ever going to marry the saucy, social-climbing siren, Sibella Hallward (Jordan Arnold).
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Only eight noblemen and women stand between him and the title of Earl of Highhurst. So he hops on his high horse and trots off to meet the D’Ysquiths, one by one.
And that’s where things really take a turn for the worsted wool.
Aaron Murphy has the yeoman’s work of playing all of the D’Ysquiths — male and female. He handles the task with aplomb. He’s hilarious at every age and station, and his quick-change artistry will gobsmack viewers. He shape-shifts from fox hunter to clergy, banker (who looks like Mr. Peanut’s grandfather), randy youth, dandy squire, humanitarian heiress, bodybuilder and over-the-top actress. That he manages to make each entrance in the proper regalia and affectations deserves its own standing ovation — as do his dressers, Kelly Shriver Kolln and Jayna Shetterly.
Evans is nothing short of remarkable, as well. The music hearkens to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with mile-a-minute patter singing that actually is tuneful and propels the action forward at breakneck speed. He has tackled some impressive roles, from Quasimodo to Dracula’s creepy assistant, Renfield, but this is his finest 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Jordan Arnold slithers her way into Sibella’s skin, shedding all manner of manners to swoop in for the kill and take her rightful place in society. She toys with Monty like a cat stalking its prey, then casting it aside when she gets bored. That opens the door for a clanging love triangle with Monty’s cousin, Miss Phoebe D’Ysquith, presumably far enough down the family line that it’s perfectly proper for him to woo her without getting the icks.
Both women wrap their characters in glorious vocals, as does everyone in the show. With just six people in the chorus, they sound like a choir times 10 and their ever-changing characters are a sight-gag to behold, from spit-takes and drill-team choreography to Saturday morning cartoon leaps and bounds.
Special nods go to director Angie Toomsen for keeping all the loose ends in line; costumer Joni Sackett for creating period-perfect pictures; choreographer Erin Helm’s sharp wit; music director Janell Lauer and her tiptop orchestra; Darin Ulmer’s spot-on sound design; and especially to S. Benjamin Farrar’s enterprising, ornate, kaleidoscopic lighting and scenic design framing every scene in aristocratic splendor.
Friends and family bounced to their feet during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal. So consider yourself warned: This show is too good to miss.
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If you go
• What: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
• When: To Feb. 23; 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
• Tickets: $22 to $45; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org
• Extra: ASL interpreted performance Feb. 21