“Everything old is new again.” The Dio’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder + a quick take on the film Bennett’s War

“Everything old is new again,” that Boy from Oz Peter Allen once musically observed. You live long enough and you see pretty much every trope and concept repeated in some form or fashion. In 2014, Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the belle of the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical among its other honors. The musical was itself based upon the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman which had inspired the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

That said, I hadn’t seen the musical until taking in The Dio Theatre’s exceptional production (currently running), and I was struck by how it made me think of so many other works: Cy Coleman’s Little Me with its succession of bumped off suitors all played by one wunderkind actor; Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with its episodic structure framed around a steadily mounting drawing room body count; Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its winking neo-operatic hyperbole; the gothic gallows whimsy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies with one absurdly alphabetically-inspired ghastly death after another; and maybe even a bit of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death with its cavalier and circuitous satire of the entire murder mystery genre

I’m not sharing all of this pedantry to sound pretentious and pompous … though that very well may be the inadvertent effect I’ve achieved. I offer this perspective to say that I’m not sure I was completely sprung on A Gentleman’s Guide‘s source material as I couldn’t shake what felt like derivative familiarity. The plot concerns Monty Navarro, the lost heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune, and his devious machinations as he systematically eliminates the eight legitimate D’Ysquith relatives standing before him and untold wealth.  A Gentleman’s Guide tells that tale, tongue firmly in cheek, as one actor plays all the ill-fated D’Ysquiths in an episodic style that is less grand guignol and more Carol Burnett Show meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three paragraphs in, I’m not here to evaluate the book or music – that ship has sailed, and the rest of the theatre community seems to universally adore A Gentleman’s Guide. My task is to talk about The Dio’s production, and, as with all of the company’s storied output, the show is beautifully, thoughtfully mounted with technical aplomb, spectacular talent, pristine music direction, and touring production-level costume and set design.

Director Steve DeBruyne in collaboration with an A-list team – Matthew Tomich (set, lighting and sound), Norma Polk (costumes), Eileen Obradovich (props), Carrie Sayer (assistant direction), and Marlene Inman (music direction) – offers a show that is by turns immersive, inspiring, layered, and sparkling. The look and feel is like an unfolding storybook: arch sartorial splendor that would put Colleen Atwood to shame; family portraits that open Laugh In-style for the Greek chorus to observe the onstage shenanigans; clever digital projections depicting locales as diverse as the D’Ysquith manor, a towering abbey, and the Egyptian pyramids.  Inman has created a sonic landscape that is as splendid as it is overwhelming; the voices onstage could fill a space three times the size of The Dio. The musical abilities of this cast, in Inman’s exceptional hands, are something to behold.

Olive Hayden-Moore, Sarah Brown, David Moan, Angela Hench [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Standouts are David Moan (“Monty”) and Sarah Brown (“Phoebe,” Monty’s cousin … and dearly beloved). Moan and Brown have a deft touch for balancing the light comedy, dark themes, and vocal prowess required here. Moan is becoming a bit of a cottage industry around humanizing sociopaths, after his celebrated turns as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins) at The Encore Theatre. Here Moan’s soaring voice is paired with a characterization that is as wry as it is poignant: an outsider always looking in, waiting for his moment to shine, even if that involves pushing a relative (or 8) off the proverbial (or literal) cliff.  Moan and Brown are at their best in the “slamming doors” number “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (also, arguably the most ear-wormy tune in the show) alongside Angela Hench (“Sibella”), depicting a love triangle gone zanily sideways. Hench is an incredible vocalist, but, at times, given the accent she employs, our table struggled to discern her lines.

Richard Payton as … The D’Ysquiths [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Local legend Richard Payton, as expected, milks every moment of excess and bombast in his multiple roles as the self-important D’Ysquiths. The scenery practically has teeth marks from his work here, and, as much fun as he is clearly having, some nuance does get lost in The Dio’s tight quarters. He is balanced by an exceptionally strong ensemble (Lydia Adams, Michael Bessom, Olive Hayden-Moore, Jared Schneider, Carrie Sayer, Maika Van Oosterhout, Mark Anthony Vukelich) also playing multiple roles. Their collective high point (other than some really funny fake ice skating) is “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” wherein Payton’s entitled queen bee “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” launches a series of successively disastrous philanthropic voyages to far flung corners of the globe, her exasperated retinue in tow.

I’m glad I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I’ve been intrigued about the show, but, admittedly, in the end, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the concept. It is a lot of show, and coupled with dinner service makes for a lengthy evening. However, I am a fan of The Dio and the magic they weave in Pinckney, Michigan. Their production of A Gentleman’s Guide is accomplished, polished, and impressive. The degree of difficulty which this theatre company continues to embrace (and conquer) seemingly without a second thought is, in a word, inspiring. And the fact that they consistently deliver exceptional productions with grace, inclusion, humility, and kindness makes The Dio an absolute treasure.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through October 6 at The Dio. Tickets may be purchased here.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, like any household, we try to strike a balance in our choices, particularly where entertainment is concerned, hence we took in the low-budget motocross film drama Bennett’s War at my husband’s request.

It’s a formulaic sports-as-metaphor flick, but, on the balance, a likable one. Production values are that of a mid-range television pilot, and, other than country star Trace Adkins as a down-on-his-luck farmer, the cast is comprised primarily of unknowns. A few jingoistic moments made me cringe – notably a golden-hued Michael Bay-like opening wherein titular every man Marshall Bennett (a winning Michael Roark) has turned his motorcycle riding prowess into a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That tour doesn’t end well. Bennett ends up back home, injured and unable to race, his family farm facing foreclosure.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, Bennett has a beloved mechanic buddy Cyrus (a charming Ali Afshar, also serving as the film’s producer and curiously choosing to tell, in character, a couple of tone-deaf jokes at the expense of his fellow Arab Americans). The duo face down an enemy motocross team Karate Kid-style (remember that “everything old is new again” thing?), overcome a few narratively convenient setbacks, and save the farm (literally).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

You know what? I enjoyed Bennett’s War. The movie is well-cast, nicely paced, and mostly good-hearted. Bennett’s War is pleasant entertainment, zips by in a breezy 90 minutes, and doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Sometimes that’s just fine.

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Richard Payton [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!