OREM — Something I love about the Hale Center Theater in Orem is that nearly every show feels dedicated to honest, exceptional storytelling. With a luxurious set, crisp dialects, and stupendous vocal and acting work, their current production is no exception. Possibly The Hale Center Theater’s best production yet, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (directed by Jennifer Hill-Barlow), is pristine and precise, glimmering with perfection like a freshly sharpened knife.
With the book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak, and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a riotous, murderous musical shining with posh, farcical British humor. The story takes place in the early 20th century and follows poor and penniless Monty Navarro, who discovers that he is ninth in the D’Ysquith family line to be Earl of Highhurst. When Monty’s love, Sibella, refuses him for a wealthier man, and the opportunity arises for one of the D’Ysquith relatives to be killed, Monty’s plot commences: He shall murder each of the D’Ysquiths to inherit his earldom. Rich with dazzling music and cheeky, hysterical comedy, Monty’s tale makes him the most endearing murderer of all time.
Using a velvety red, tumbling curtain to add high-class grandeur to the space, set designer Jason Baldwin pushes the main actors even closer to the audience, drawing them in to be co-conspirators in Monty’s whimsically murderous plot. Further immersing viewers into this world is the unbelievably fantastic work of dialect coach Dianna Graham and music director Anne Puzey. Austin Dorman as Montague “Monty” Navarro is entrancing with his splendidly delightful RP British accent, rich throughout the show with stellar liquid “u’s” and superbly executed signature sounds. The rest of the cast’s accents follow in a similar suit with killer accuracy, thanks to the precise work of Graham. A similarly strict and gratifying precision is found in the singing, especially the D’Ysquith Family ensemble, with clear, sharp cut offs and spectacular diction in “A Warning to the Audience” and “Why are All the D’Ysquith’s Dying?” Puzey and Graham have created a whimsical world grounded in reality thanks to their brilliant attention to voice work, for which I am deeply grateful.
Of course, I must give credit to the stupendous actors who embody these fantastical yet endearingly humane characters. The crown of the production without a doubt is Bryan Dayley as he plays not one, not two, but all eight members of the D’Ysquith family that Monty plans to kill. Dayley masters the portrayal of each member with phenomenal distinctions in each person’s voice and physicality. With seemingly flawless comedic brilliance, impeccable stamina, and astounding, powerful character execution, audiences might be shocked to realize that Dayley is still a college student, making his performance all the more impressive.
Dorman as the dashing yet sensitive Montague “Monty” Navarro is the perfect guide for this absurdly entertaining story on “love and murder.” Due to Dorman’s beautifully engaging stage presence, his numbers in the production are my favorite, especially “Foolish to Think.” When Dorman sings, his energy fills the space as he connects genuinely with his audiences. Dorman’s ability to make every lyric feel important and urgent is infectious. That, combined with his animated yet grounded movements make him an incredibly compelling, enjoyable actor to watch.
The two leading ladies are nothing short of masterful of their craft. Both women have a delightfully refreshing combination of comedy and legit style singing, which they execute swimmingly. Brittany Sanders as Sibella Hallward sparkles as the cartoonish diva, dancing swiftly across the stage without even the slightest shift in her remarkably supported singing. Lisa Zimmerman is lovely and elegant as the delicate Phoebe D’Ysquith, her beautiful voice fluttering and floating above the audience. Zimmerman’s realistic, sincere expressions at the D’Ysquith Family dinner table during long pauses left me especially amused.
Jennifer Hill-Barlow and the HCTO team has created a near flawless production. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is teeming with brilliant, farcical comedy, exceptional acting, and voice work that sets a high bar for the Utah theater scene. Anyone would be “Foolish to Think” they could miss this particularly spectacular production.