MANSFIELD — The latest show at the Renaissance Theatre gives the plot away right in its title.
"Spoiler alert: I die a lot," said Colton Penwell, who will take on the massive task of playing nine members of one family that each meet a hilarious end in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" opening this Saturday.
When the low-born Monty Navarro finds out that he's eighth in line for an earldom in the lofty D'Ysquith family, he figures his chances of outliving his predecessors are slim to none. Therefore, to get back at his terrible family and get to the riches, Monty sets out to knock off his unsuspecting relatives without being caught and become the ninth Earl of Highhurst.
Director Michael Thomas described the show as a combination of Downton Abbey, Monty Python, Agatha Christie and just a touch of The Silence of the Lambs. He's joined by Kelly Knowlton providing musical direction.
"It's very light, dark humor," Thomas said. "The ferocity of the murders in this show are on par with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny."
And the victim of each murder is Penwell, playing all male and female members of the D'Ysquith family in keeping with the traditions of British theatre. Penwell described the role as "a character actor's dream" as he cycles between nine cartoonish characters who...well, maybe aren't the best people.
"He auditioned with his many voices - and that's Colton anyway, he has this broad spectrum of personalities that he presents - and I knew he could have a lot of fun with it as a physical actor," Thomas said.
The role has forced Penwell to master the art of the quick-change and lose what little sense of modesty he might have had, as crew members Anne Kurtzman and Melinda Tishue help dress Penwell in the wings of the Renaissance stage, sometimes in 30 seconds or less.
"We have a plan where one unzips me as I come offstage, I drop it, I step into the next one or I put my arms out and they zip me up," he said. "Take off a mustache, put on a mustache, change the hat, the wig, and then I go back out. It has been an absolute marathon; as entertaining as it is to watch onstage, I wish you could see the insanity that's going on in the wings."
Despite Penwell's many demises, murder isn't the only thing on Monty Navarro's mind as the heir to the earldom also finds himself in a love triangle. It's a sympathetic side to the character, played by Kyle Miller, that could be easily forgotten amidst his many crimes.
"I like playing villains, which should not be a surprise to anyone who's looked at my resume," Miller said. "But this one is a really great mixture of your charming leading man and your maniacal villain, so I think there's a lot of levels and hopefully, if I do my job right, you will be rooting for me."
Miller noted "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" has been a challenge musically.
"It has got me back in shape vocally, and the cast is just lovely," he said. "It's so great to work with all these people. Many people in the cast have expressed there are a bunch of unexpected ear-worms you'll walk out humming because the music is just gorgeous."
The cast of "A Gentleman’s Guide" also includes Leah Gesouras as Miss Shingle, Kelly Knowlton as Phoebe D’Ysquith, and Maddie Penwell as Sibella Hallward. Each of the remaining cast members, called “The Company,” will perform many characters and have multiple quick costume changes throughout the show, including Matti-Lynn Chrisman, Kate Ernsberger, Anna Scheurer, Ryan Shreve, Scott Smith, and Peter Henkels.
Part of Thomas' reasoning for choosing the Tony award-winning show was to challenge his cast, and grow the audience's musical tastes.
"One of the reasons I picked it is it has not only great acting challenges but it also stretches us musically. It's the kind of music we don't usually do in musicals because it's semi-classical, almost operatic," Thomas said. "It's a really funny script, it's a wonderful ensemble piece and as we continue to grow and stretch our legs here it was exactly what I was looking for, a piece that would not only challenge our actors but challenge our audience in a way.
"We don't want to keep doing the exact same shows over and over," he added. "I think there's a bit of a learning curve with this one; it's not a challenge to the audience at all, it's hilariously funny. But it's not familiar, it's not comfortable ground. It's very light, dark humor."
"A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder" will be shown at the Renaissance Theatre on November 16, 17, 23 and 24. Tickets start at $15 and are on sale now at RenTickets.org, at the Renaissance Box Office or via phone at (419) 522-2726.
"Theatre has a lot of uses in this world; sometimes it's to be very exploratory and sometimes it's because you need entertainment," Miller said. "We all need a little escape sometimes. The world is a pretty messy place, sometimes you need a little fluff to remove you from that. And this is a good laugh."
This story is brought to you in part by the Renaissance Theatre. For more information on upcoming shows, visit www.rentickets.org.