From left: Caroline Brown, Angel Santiago, Cathy Moubray in Cocoa Village Playhouse production of A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. Photo by Jonathan Goforth.
By PAM HARBAUGH
The Cocoa Village Playhouse opens one of the most challenging, and most funny, new musicals, “A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER.” It opens Friday and runs through March 24.
And it’s fitting that the first area to tackle this should be the well-appointed and well-stocked and well-budgeted Cocoa Village Playhouse because the look of the show is as crucial as the characters, music and plot. This Tony Award winner requires sumptuous costumes and wigs constructed with elaborate flair, scenery loaded with luscious Victorian exactitude and tightly timed acting appropriately broad to show off all those delicious details.
If you haven’t seen a professional tour of it, then check out the Broadway cast recording which is done with such exquisite panache you’ll easily understand why it’s just so funny.
Based on a 1907 novel by British writer Roy Horniman, the musical was created by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak. It is set in 1909 and revolves around impoverished Monty Navarro. Quite by accident, he learns that he is a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family. Only eight people stand in Navarro’s way of inheriting the entire D’Ysquith fortune, thus setting in motion Navarro’s nefarious plot: To eliminate each person in his way.
But he’s a gentleman, of sorts, and a romantic one at that. He has a lover, Sibelia, who leaves him and marries another man. Not one to mope about, he soon falls for Phoebe, a D’Ysquith by marriage who has become a widow thanks to Monty.
Orlando performer Angel Santiago said the only problem he expects with the production is keeping a straight face around James Spiva, a comic actor who morphs into nine different D’Ysquiths during the course of the show.
He told Spiva that even with all the intricate harmonies, rhythms, lyrics and proper English that must not be paraphrased, the hardest part was going to be on stage with Spiva without cracking up.
“Every day he just cracks me up in a different way,” Santiago said.Spiva, who positively channeled the late Gene Wilder in the Playhouse’s “Young Frankenstein,” has to go from one big D’Ysquith character to another in a flash. They include two lords, one reverend, two women, a major and three sons. (And if you don’t mind one more “Young Frankenstein” flashback, who can forget how Spiva totally won audiences over from the very first moment he spins around, flashing that mad, utterly over the top caricature so necessary in that spoof.)
“I am having a blast,” Spiva said. “It is frantic. The humor of the show is so quick and witty. We’re all having a great time cracking each other up…Pam Larson has really done a great job taking the lead in the direction for this show. She’s given us a lot of freedom to make these characters who they are.”Helping Spiva tackle these roles is Dan Hill, the costume designer and a quick change team led by Tracy Wines. Hill made his costumes specifically for the quick changes, one no more than 18 seconds. His costumer’s trick: Make the costume, sew it all together into a onesie, then install a $5 zippers up the length in the back of the costume. Et voila, instant costume change.
Although Hill expected that designing and constructing the costumes for the entire show would take an extraordinary amount of time, he was the one who suggested that CVP produce it. He learned last summer, during the annual announcement gala, that he would have his wish.
“I had seen it in New York and I thought ‘Oh, this is something that would look fantastic on the stage’,” he said. “But it’s new and generally not available. I didn’t have any high hopes of it happening. When it was announced, I was very happy.”
Hill began last Christmas going through fabrics he had on hand. One, he had bought five years ago:
“There’s a really great black velvet brocade with a gold trim that had just been sitting there staring at me,” he said. “The fabrics talk to me and as I go back into my fabric room, they always go ‘use me.’ So this one black fabric is finally having its time. The Lady Eugenia, a very grand lady, seemed to be perfect for it.”
He got emotional when, after making a ruffly wonder, which he calls “Pretty in Pink,” he fit it on actress Caroline Brown, who plays Sibelia. He did the same with “The Garden Dress,” a purple beauty for Cathy Moubray who plays Phoebe.“They start with ‘Oh, it’s tight, oh it’s heavy,” he said. “Then, they look in the mirror and go ‘Oooo’ and turn into the character. It’s fun to watch that moment.
Contrary to Hill’s elaborate approach, scenic designer Joseph Lark Riley went minimal with scenery in order to keep focus on the fluid movement, elaborate plot, rococo characters and sumptuous costumes.
Using an overriding concept of a “cabinet of curiosities,” Lark Riley focused mostly on the arch over the opening to the stage and on which the grand curtain hangs. He designed what’s known as a “false proscenium” to look like a mammoth cabinet of curiosities with eight cubbies filled assemblages of artifacts signifying the family members who get “done in.”
Set pieces, such as a Victorian couch, are moved on and off. Projections at the rear of the stage create context and help define location, such as a prison, a castle, a garden, a frozen lake, a chapel and more. One scene goes through nine different locations. Helping him make those are lighting designer Ian Cook and associate director Jeremy Phelps.
“It’s all set within the cabinet,” Lark Riley said. That’s our concept for it. The cabinet is pretty much the entire stage.”
Music director and pit orchestra conductor Michael Law is leading the cast through the marvelous, melodic music and cagey lyrics.
“It’s certainly a romp,” said ensemble member Jason Crase. “I think the audience will have a really wonderful time watching the story unfold as well as watching how our performers bring life to these characters.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER opens March 8 and runs through March 24 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa, FL. Tickets are $18 to $26. Call 321-636-5050 or visit CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.
This is an edited version of a story running in Melbourne Beachsider. All costumes shown are by Dan Hill.