'A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder' isn't just a man's play.
When you’re a woman in a show known for requiring one man to play eight roles, it’s hard to get recognized.
But Sarah Ellis and Alexandra Zorn are making sure Florida Studio Theatre audiences don’t forget about them.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is a comedic musical following the story of Monty, a distant heir to a family fortune who will do anything to get rid of the eight men standing between him and unlimited wealth.
Yes, anything. Even murder, as the title implies. But as Monty continues his killing spree, he’s also trying to juggle a fiancé and mistress — cue the strong female characters.
Monty is in love with his childhood friend Sibella (Sarah Ellis), but she’s a social climber who refuses to marry him unless he’s wealthy. She ends up marrying a richer man, Lionel Holland.
Realizing he can never be with Sibella, Monty soon sets his eyes on Phoebe D’Ysquith (Alexandra Zorn). She’s the sister of Henry D’Ysquith, and after a tragic bee-sting incident (Monty is a creative murderer), he charmingly comforts her while she mourns the loss of Henry. Phoebe starts to fall for Monty.
However, even throughout his engagement to Phoebe, Monty continues a love affair with Sibella. Suddenly he’s one point of a love triangle with two women with opposing interests but one key personality trait in common. They know what they want.
“She’s very strong willed, which is really fun to play, especially as a woman of the early 1900s,” Ellis says of Sibella. “She’s so in control of her destiny, and it makes her a kind of pioneer of women at that time.”
Zorn also sees Phoebe as not adhering to society’s perception of how a young woman of the early 20th century should act. She’s quirky, independent and not easily jealous — neither of them are, apparently, because the two, in love with the same man, end up forming a partnership to free Monty later in the show.
“If I could make a rule for myself it would be to only play women like that,” Zorn says. “Women who are excited and say what they mean and mean what they say … not just a cookie cutter version of what a woman in (Edwardian) England would be.”
Unlike most women of her time, Phoebe runs an estate on her own when her brother is gone. And when she meets Monty, she isn’t concerned with how she’s being perceived — Zorn says what comes out of her character’s mouth is essentially word vomit, but Phoebe isn’t ashamed of it.
Sibella is also unapologetically herself, Ellis says, and she has no problem being a narcissist and marrying for money.
“It’s fun to play someone who’s kind of in love with themselves,” she adds.
As for how she prepared for the role, Ellis says she approached it just like any new character she portrays.
She always writes down all the things that her character says about herself in the script, along with what other people say about her, in an attempt to orient herself and understand where she stands in relation to the other characters. Even the stage directions, such as little details about the kinds of gestures Sibella makes, give her insight into how playwright Robert L. Freedman envisioned the character.
Zorn is usually cast in dramas and other classical soprano roles in musicals like those of Rodgers and Hammerstein (she played Cinderella on a recent national tour of the Broadway production), so she was excited to get in touch with her comedic side.
But even when she’s no longer playing Phoebe, Zorn says she can take the lessons she’s learned from the character and adapt them to other roles.
“I love being able to play these iconic roles that I can then bring my own hopefully comedic timing to and her bravery — so even if the woman isn’t written in a 2018 mindset, I’ll make sure to bring a 2018 heart to her.”
Both women agree all the performers in the show have challenging roles because of the quick pace of the musical, the difficult vocal range it requires and the demanding choreography they have to nail while acting and singing at the same time. But the women have to do it all in heels and corsets, so take that into consideration when comparing them to the male leads.
Regardless of the tough nature of the musical, Zorn and Ellis both love a challenge.
“I have a huge crush on this show,” Ellis says. “It’s like a carousel that you have to get on and ride or you’re fighting it.”