Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reviews: Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder/West Side Story

Below are reviews of two recent musicals my family and I saw on stage this past year...

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

I first caught this show in April 2016 in Los Angeles with much of the original Broadway cast intact, but when the touring production returned last February to the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Orange County, my wife and I decided to take our children. So this is the second time I’ve seen it!

Winner of the 2014 Tony for Best Musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is closely based on the 1949 Ealing British black comedy film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which itself is loosely based on a 1907 novel called, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. (For some legal reason, the musical did not have permission to use the same title, so it is officially based on the novel, though it hews closely to the film.)

Set in Edwardian England and considered a skewering of the upper class, “Guide” is a crowd-pleaser of a musical about an estranged member of the prominent D'Ysquith clan named Montague "Monty" D'Ysquith Navarro who—both out of greed and the poor treatment of his late mother at the hands of the D’Ysquith family who disinherited her when she chose to marry a musician below their station—proceeds to kill all those in succession before him when he discovers that he is tenth in line to the family’s title position of the Earl of Highhurst. He does so in ingenious clever ways to make the deaths all look accidental, leading to grisly and funny deaths that are hilariously portrayed using clever yet simple stagecraft.

Adding to the fun of the show is the fact that a single actor portrays each member of the D’Ysquith clan murdered by Navarro (including the women). The conceit parallels the same feat performed by actor Alec Guinness in the 1949 film. Each member of the family, of course, has their own unique eccentricity, which no doubt makes the role an actor’s delight. The show’s music is fitting reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In addition to the tension of whether Navarro will get caught, there is also a love triangle involving a lover and a cousin.

The children loved the show.

West Side Story

Many people are no doubt familiar with the classic 1961 film adaptation of "West Side Story," co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, adapted from the iconic 1957 Broadway show by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Robbins (concept and choreography), which was inspired by William Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet.” Nevertheless, live performances are a beast unto themselves so it is always a treat to watch a well-known show, particularly when the film adaptation differs from the play.

This touring production was put together by the La Mirada Playhouse and my family and I saw it as a Saturday matinee at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge. My son had recently discovered the film and very much looked forward to the show.

This is a fine production—it says much about the power of the story and the music that I found myself tearing up at some moments, particularly when Tony and Maria first meet. All the actors—particularly the leads—had beautiful voices, though it probably helped that the mics ensured they played to the back rows.

With that said, I found the first half of the production serviceable, with everyone hitting their marks but not quite transcending the material. That changed in the second half, however, after intermission—both the actors and the production seemed to then fully embody the story and the music. The second half was powerful and effecting. Kudos to the leads, and main supporting players, who provided some of the lighter moments in this otherwise sad and tragic story.

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