Shakespeare Theatre of NJ’s season-opening ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ is a silly, sinister sensation

gentleman's guide review


Christopher Sutton stars in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey doesn’t produce musicals very often. Welcoming the crowd on opening night (May 18) of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” in fact, the theater’s new artistic director, Brian Crowe, mentioned that this was STNJ’s first musical since 2012.

Maybe the theater, which launched its 2024 season with this show, should do musicals more often. I certainly have seen more profound works at this theater, over the years, than this breezy farce. But for sheer entertainment value, this production ranks right up there, somewhere near the top. I saw “Gentleman’s Guide” on Broadway, during its Best Musical Tony-winning 2013-2016 run. And, honestly, I enjoyed this production, directed by Crowe himself, more.


Miles Jacoby and Claire Leyden in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

I think part of that had to do with the intimacy of the venue. The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is about a third of the size of the theater in which “Gentleman’s Guide” ran on Broadway, and that really helped me appreciate the brilliance of the actors: Christopher Sutton’s ability create a distinct personality for each of the many characters he plays; the sly sense of mischief that Claire Leyden brought to the role of the casually adulterous Sibella; Eryn Lecroy’s steely determination as the virtuous Phoebe; and the glee with which Lauren Cohn embraced the daffiness of the mysterious Miss Shingle.

Miles Jacoby has the tricky task of playing Monty, the character who acts the most outrageously but who also seems, in some ways, like the most normal person in a musical populated by oddballs. Though raised humbly, Monty discovers, early in the musical, that he is ninth in line to an earldom that could make him rich and powerful beyond his wildest dreams. And so, with little more than a shrug, he sets out to surreptitiously murder those who stand in his way — and finds out that he has quite a talent for it. Jacoby’s easy-going manner and quiet confidence helps makes this monster seem more likeable than you might think possible.

Sutton is the designated scene-stealer, and he lives up to the challenge. He plays ALL of Monty’s victims — members of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, one more bizarre than the next. It is a treat to watch him reinvent himself, over and over, with each character getting a different costume, a different way of carrying himself or herself (one of the potential heirs is female) and, in some cases, a different body shape. They are such ridiculous caricatures that they don’t seem real, but that is one of the reasons why it doesn’t really bother us to watch the murders pile up.

Steven Lutvak penned the music, Robert L. Freedman wrote the book, and they collaborated on the lyrics. The songs are, in many cases, both clever and catchy, whether it is Lord Adalbert (one of the clueless toffs played by Sutton) complaining “I Don’t Understand the Poor” (“Though my politics are purely democratical/I find the species, frankly, problematical,” he sings) or the townspeople collectively asking, “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” (“Though privately it was said/They should all drop dead/No one thought they ever really would”).


Ensemble members in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

At times, this “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” was a little too busy for its own good. Talking paintings on the back wall, representing the D’Ysquiths’ ancestors, were amusing enough. But the occasional animated storytelling on the same wall was very hit-or-miss: Some of these segments added an additional laugh to a scene (and gave Sutton a little more time to change costumes), but some were hard to decipher, and fell flat.

“Gentleman’s Guide” is of fairly recent vintage, having been first produced in 2012. But it has a classic feel, with — as Crowe writes in the “Director’s Note” included in the program — “nods to music hall operettas, penny dreadfuls, the Grand Guignol, Gilbert & Sullivan, and even a bit of ‘Sweeney Todd.’ ” Indeed, its roots lie in a long-gone era: It is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” which also inspired the hit 1949 movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness.

This musical is a lot of things. You could see it as a satire of upper class obliviousness, or a revenge fantasy. On another level, it is a love story, with Monty torn between near-opposites Sibella and Phoebe. It offers a whirlwind of action, with some goofy gags and some lovely songs along the way.

Crowe writes, in the “Director’s Note,” of “all its sinister, silly, romantic, and absurd twists and turns.” That is a lot of ground to cover. But somehow, this “Gentleman’s Guide” makes it seem like a natural mix.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will present “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison through June 9. Visit

Next up on the STNJ schedule is Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which will be on the outdoor stage at St. Elizabeth University in Morristown, starting on June 19.


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