Award-winning musical opens April 26 at the Morgan Hill Playhouse

From left: Michelle Vera as Sibella Hallward, Chris Brady as Monty Navarro, and Lucy Nino as Phoebe D’Ysquith in SVCT’s production of a “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Photo courtesy Chris Foster

By Calvin Nuttall

Homicide has never been so delightfully humorous as in the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” The South Valley Civic Theatre show opens April 26.

This Tony Award-winning musical comedy takes audiences on a farcical romp with the charmingly wicked killer “Monty Navarro,” portrayed by Chris Brady. Navarro finds himself ninth in line to inherit the title of Earl of Highhurst. He decides to eliminate, one by one, the other eight heirs (all played by Ray D’Ambrosio) standing in his way.

“A ‘hero’s journey’ is the wrong word for it,” Brady said. “It’s more like a villain’s journey. You do root for the villain, and he is the ‘hero’ of the story even though he is a murderer. It’s funny, it’s punchy, and the music is just awesome.”

Destitute and recently orphaned, Navarro’s life is suddenly turned upside-down when it is revealed his mother was a disowned member of the wealthy and powerful D’Ysquith family, making him an heir to the title of Earl of Highhurst. The family, however, refuses him, denying the legitimacy of his claim. So he does the natural thing and decides to kill the ones who stand in his way.

“All eight of these D’Ysquiths are horrible people,” said director Tressa Bender. “So you kind of root for the murderer. They all kind of embody a type of human you won’t like. And it is all done to fun music.”

Murdering his way to wealth and power is not the only thing motivating Monty: love is also a factor. He is smitten with “Sibella Hallward” (Michelle Vera), but she is uninterested in marrying him due to his poverty, and she has turned to other options.

“The woman he loves is abandoning him for a young man who is rich and has all of the trappings of wealth,” Brady said. “It’s 1907 and he’s got a motorcar –  that kind of wealth.”

The show takes place on a stage within a stage, as Navarro recounts his exploits from his jail cell while he composes his memoir, also titled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” As our narrator throughout the story, Brady remains onstage for nearly the entire show.

“Finding the actors with the acumen to pull off these characters was a challenge,” Bender said. “They are some of the most difficult roles, I think, in musical theater.”

The rapid-fire costume changes and multiple different characters all played by the versatile D’Ambrosio brings a unique element of farcical chaos to the action, he said about his roles.

“It’s exceedingly busy,” he said. “There are nine characters, including several I jump back and forth between. There are several costume changes, some of which are really fast, like 30 seconds or less. That’s going to be an interesting exercise. ”

After a certain point in the show, once the audience sees D’Ambrosio return to the stage as yet another new character, they can guess what is coming next: another murder. But despite this, the show manages to keep a viewer on their toes, Bender said.

“Even though you know he’s going to die, there is still some shock to it, there is still surprise at every turn,” she said.

An experienced actor and long-time fan of the show, D’Ambrosio said he was ecstatic when SVCT announced it would be auditioning for “A Gentleman’s Guide.”

“This role has been on my bucket list,” D’Ambrosio said. “There are guns and poisons and bees and drownings, and no two deaths are the same. That’s what makes this role so much fun, is that I have to try my best to create nine distinct characters and nine distinct deaths. I only have one voice, of course, but I have to bend and twist it in a bunch of different ways. That’s a big part of the fun.”

Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter and columnist.