A Trifle Murderous at Water Tower Theatre

Murder most foul in Broadway musicals? Seems an odd pairing, but time has proven the combo major hit fodder. In 1975 Kander, Ebb and Fosse’s Chicago debuted 0n Broadway, based on a 1926 play about two murderesses’ trials, and ended up as second longest running musical on Broadway with six Tony Awards, two Oliviers and a Grammy. In 1979 Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller, wowed Broadway audiences and won both Tony and Olivier Awards, in spite of its brutishly dark material. Then in 1994 the Sondheim and Weidman striking collaboration Assassins won both Tony and Drama Desk awards for outstanding revival of a musical. A dead-on trend manifests….

No surprise, then, when Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened on Broadway, it also won four Tony Awards in 2014, including Best Musical. Based on a 1907 novel, it’s more of a whimsical revenge romp and romance set to glorious music than a dark, brooding tale of murderous intrigue. Addison’s Water Tower Theatre picked a rollicking winner for mid-summer 2022 production. Bound to sell-out, deservedly so!

In her directorial debut with WaterTower Theatre, TCU professor and Musical Theatre Specialist Penny Ayn Maas brings a wealth of experience and innovative craftsmanship to her leadership role. Having hired her previously to helm successful musical productions for Lyric Stage in downtown Dallas, WTT’s Producing Artistic Director Shane Peterman knew Maas would be perfect to implement the layered complexity and demanding vocal and staging requirements of “Gentleman’s Guide”. The theatre’s angular, deep Terry Martin Main Stage can prove challenging to fully utilize, especially the elevated, recessed balcony spaces that seem disconnected from the ground floor. In my 15+ years of reviewing WTT productions, I have never seen the balcony elements incorporated so well, helping to drive the show arc forward, as they are here. The 23+ upbeat musical numbers whiz along through two agile, complex acts, paying tribute more to Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song vocal tradition than more contemporary ballad styles, while featuring the professional talents and training of every cast member. Never humdrum, with no moment wasted, Maas’ vocal ensemble and lead players maintain the rocketing pace without ever leaving the audience behind, bringing an energized freshness and clarity to every number. Kudos to the finessed teamwork exhibited by Maas, her Musical Director/ Orchestra Conductor Jeff Crouse, Sound Designer/Engineer Mark Howard, and Lighting Designer Aaron Johansen, resulting in a smooth as glass technical execution, on all levels. With the visionary management handing the stellar ensemble a playing space on a gleaming silver platter, every cast member seized the opportunity to excel in his or her role and offered non-stop buoyant performances.

The ten-person cast negotiated the musical numbers and tricky intricacies of multi-level blocking and speed-run tempo entrances and exits as if they were a cakewalk. Vocal blends never missed their marks, and solos enlivened character with crisp diction and defined expression. Andrew Keeler brought an empathy-worthy blend of genuine charm and cheerful opportunism to lead man, Monty. Laura Lyman Payne as soubrette Sibella gifted every scene with her rich, resonant tones and defiant, sensual persona, in balance with Alison Whitehurst’s soaring soprano vocals that lifted ingenue Phoebe to angelic heights. All very British, tongue-in-cheek and airy as creamy Trifle. Keep an eye on Sarah Caldwell as Woman 1 and the most devious Miss Shingle.

The musical’s anticipated showpiece? Randy Pearlman, always a compelling acting force to reckon with when playing one role, outdoes himself in mastering the entire D’Ysquith clan from aging dowager to creaky reverend to the family’s atrocious stage actress to every male in succession to the lordship Monty desires (all nine characters). How easy Pearlman makes the snappy transitions seem; during rehearsal did he ever have nightmares about entering in the wrong costume as the wrong character? Never a misstep, every character fleshed out to the hilarious nines…Pearlman gives a one-of-a-kind performance that WTT patrons will admire for years to come.

I caught up to Director Penny Maas after the show, to ask about her first experience directing at WTT. She said she could not have been more pleased, from the company management to the tech personnel to the artists she worked with. “A glorious experience, start to finish.” She praised Associate Producer and Chief COVID Compliance Officer Elizabeth Kensek for managing the complexities presented by Gentleman’s Guide so smoothly and safely. Even with the sizeable cast plus 10-piece orchestra, tech staff and production managers, all stayed compliant with COVID rules, and nobody contracted it. A weighty accomplishment. I look forward to seeing Penny Maas back in the Director’s Chair for future WTT productions.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through July 31, a murder musical to die for? www.watertowertheatre.org

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