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Review: In Selma, the ‘Love’ is exquisite, but the ‘Murder’ can be a bit wobbly

THEATER REVIEW

How many distant relatives would you be willing to kill in order to become an earl?

I asked that question of readers when giving away tickets to opening weekend of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at Selma Arts Center.

Here’s what one wrote:

“I’m already an Earle, so no murders for me.” said Jennifer Earle.

Best. Comment. Ever.

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The silliness is apropos for this jaunty musical, which receives its central San Joaquin Valley premiere in Selma. It’s a lively and often inspired comic outing with several outstanding leading performances, a spiffy ensemble and often inspired direction.

Pictured above: Aaron Pierce, center, is Monty Navarro in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’  Photo: Selma Arts Center

Yet other aspects of the production don’t reach the highest levels of community-theater excellence, which is what I think Selma is striving for.

Here’s a review rundown:

The show: “A Gentleman’s Guide” was the darling of Broadway in the 2013-14 season, winning a slew of Tony Awards, including best musical. Unlike the often massive behemoth productions that seem to dominate Broadway these days, “Gentlemen’s” was an intimate show with a small cast, relatively simple scenery and an emphasis on the prowess of its comic actors.


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The plot: Set in 1907 in Edwardian England, the central character is Monty Navarro (played by the excellent Aaron Pierce), an ambitious but money-challenged young man who gets some astonishing news: He’s actually a member of the noble D’ysquith family, in line to become an earl. (His mother was disinherited because of her choice of husband. Imagine, an upright Englishwoman falling for a Spaniard.) The only problem is that eight D’ysquiths — male and female, young and doddering, sympathetic and egregious — are ahead of him in the succession. They’d all have to die in order for him to move into the castle. Does he have what it takes? Along the way, he juggles two lovely ladies (Taylor Delgado and Cady Mejias) romantically.

The gimmick: All this could be not very funny — and, quite honestly, dreary and downright morbid — if not for the central conceit of the show: All the D’ysquiths in Monty’s way are played by the same actor. On Broadway, acclaimed musical-theater actor Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) starred in the multiple roles in a virtuoso (and Tony Award-winning) performance. I got the chance to see Mays in New York, and it was great fun to see him inhabit so many characters. In Selma, Randall Kohlruss climbs the Everest-level acting challenge.

The Selma production: Co-directors Dakota Simpson and Michael C. Flores take a complicated premise with multiple settings (and murders) and put an energized local spin on things. (The first death is particularly inspired.) I think the hardest thing about making this show work is making sure it connects on an emotional level with the audience as well as a comic one, and the key is to keep the comedy from becoming too broad and overbearing. On this level, the co-directors are only semi-successful. At one point, a husband and wife who despise each other spar over dinner, but their delivery is so bombastic that it’s almost impossible to understand the insults.

Selma Arts Center

Randy Kohlruss as a D’Ysquith in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’

The acting: Pierce is a standout as Monty, both in terms of vocals and acting. The character calls for ambition, humility, empathy, ruthlessness and passivity, all handsomely rolled together into a self-confident package, and Pierce finds lots of notes in the role that make it his. I was quite taken with Delgado as Sibella, his prime (yet money-hungry) squeeze, and Mejias as Phoebe (his far more “respectable” option), a marriage prospect. (Their fluttering soprano voices are beautiful, and both have great comic timing.) One very pleasant surprise for me was seeing Jessica Reedy, most familiar in innumerable Shakespeare productions over the decades, excel in a musical. She plays the small but pivotal role of Miss Shingle, who first tells Monty of his noble lineage.

The D’Ysquiths: Kohlruss burns a tremendous number of calories playing a series of memorable characters. Yet the part I mentioned before about connecting emotionally with the audience is elusive for Kohlruss much of the time. Much of the reason is his diction, accent and volume. Too often, his vocals spill forth in a blend between a shout and a screech, and several of the D’Ysquiths are encumbered by a lisping, phlegmy, gurgly mash of vowels and consonants. It’s hard enough for American audiences to understand thick Cockney-style dialects, but ones that are too loud and slurred together are especially problematic. (Besides, shouldn’t the D’Ysquiths have crisp, upper-class diction, no matter how despicable, old or annoying they are otherwise?) Kohlruss is a fine comic actor, and he has many strong moments in this show, but I found that my favorite of his characters was the one who is most restrained. Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., the relative with the highest opinion of Monty, sings “The Last One You’d Expect” at the end of the first act, and it’s here that Kohlruss really connects. I realize that many of the characters he plays in this production are slapstick caricatures, but he has to be careful not to smother them in giddiness.

Selma Arts Center

Michael Brandon Fidalgo in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’

The ensemble: It’s an effective and cohesive group. (Flores’ choreography is very good.) All are fun to watch: Laura Hay, Karina Balfour, Maria Monreal, Daniel LaJune and Christopher Ortiz-Belcher. I remain thoroughly impressed, as usual, with Michael Brandon Fidalgo, who brings a captivating stage presence to any Selma role, large or small.

The creative team: Dan Aldape’s lights, Damen Pardo’s costumes and Emma Raymond’s makeup/wig design are top-notch. Erik Andersen and Nicolette C. Andersen’s scenic design is a weak point. I’m sorry for being so distractible, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the uneven border panel at the top of the squared proscenium; it looks more like school pageant than solid community theater. When you have a pivotal scene involving slamming doors, make sure the structure doesn’t wobble every time those doors open or close. Simply put, the set looks cheap, and it detracts from the production.

The overall impression: Along with very good vocals, there are some really fine and amusing moments in this show. While I linger on some of the faults, the pluses certainly outweigh the negatives. I wouldn’t try this “Guide” at home, unless you’re perhaps heir to an ag fortune, but these are some of the funniest murders you’ll see committed all year.


Show info

‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’ Selma Arts Center. 7 p.m. Friday, March 28; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 29. Tickets are $19 general, $17 students and seniors, $15 children. Saturday matinee is Buy One, Get One Free.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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