Playwright: Book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak, lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak.
At: Porchlight Music Theater at the Ruth Page Auditorium. Tickets: PorchlightMusicTheatre.org 773-777-9884; $39-$66. Runs through: March 16
Those lamenting the reduction of the North American musical to pop-playlists augmented by the skimpiest of narratives can take heart from Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak. From a cluster of threadbare, overworked and potentially offensive genres, this talented duo has cobbled a frothy, witty, irreverent romp reaching across a century to address social customs yesterday and today.
Based on a 1909 novel, the Penny Dreadful premise proposes Montague "Monty" Navarro, a commoner robbed of his birthrightnot to mention marriage to a likewise materialistic sweetheartby his snobbish relations in the lofty House of D'Ysquith following his mother's elopement with an ( gasp! ) Italian artist. Upon learning that he is ninth in line to inherit the family fortune, Monty proceeds to orchestrate his predecessors' early demises and in doing so, avenge their mistreatment of his late mum. Fortunately, his D'ysquith kin are richly deserving of their fate, being as shallow and mercantile as their would-be executionerwith two exceptions, whose wholesome values suggest a less sanguine means of advancement for our homicidal hero.
A few playgoers may detect traces of source material shared by the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets in this scenario, introducing another much-copied motifthat of the quick-change tour de force wherein a single actor portrays a dizzying succession of characters. Porchlight Music Theater director Stephen Schellhardt continues the tradition inaugurated by Alec Guinness in casting Matt Crowle as all but one of the inconvenient D'Ysquiths.
Unlike its cheaper incarnations, however, this is no one-note stunt show. Freedman and Lutvak's vigorous score hearkens to the vaudeville, music-hall and operettathink Gilbert and Sullivanof the play's period ( footnoted by music director Andra Velis Simon's selection of authentic Gilded Age-tunes for pre-show and intermission ). Andres Enriquez, Emily Goldberg, Ann Delaney and a high-stepping ensemble ensure that our ambitious protagonist, the women who love him and cohorts thereof, are never eclipsed by Angela Weber Miller's Victorian fold-out scenery, Anthony Churchill's Monty Python-esque projections and Jeff Hendry's foamy wardrobe recalling the iconic images of Charles Dana Gibson.