Since Wolfbane Productions started producing shows in 2008, it has enraptured audiences with its inventive and, quite frankly, eccentric interpretations of theater.
Productions have been staged on historic sites and in the woods, and spectators have walked away drenched in fake blood.
That’s what makes Wolfbane’s production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which opens Thursday, such a departure for the company.
Compared to certain horror flick-inspired musicals, it’s downright traditional — though the plot, which involves the systematic slaughter of an entire family, will have a note of familiarity for longtime patrons.
“It definitely throws back to a lot of those old trunk shows, but it’s not cheap humor,” says Wolfbane Executive Director Ken Arpino, who is directing the production. “The book and the lyrics are pretty brilliant. Every word is chosen for a reason.”
Set in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century, “Gentleman’s Guide” follows low-born Monty Navarro as he discovers he’s actually a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family (pronounced Die-squith, obviously) and ninth in line for an earldom.
In the hopes of securing his relationship with his socially ambitious love, Monty decides to remove the familial relations that stand in his way.
The show, which is based on the 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, received praise for its old-school feel and inventive, humorous plot when it premiered on Broadway in 2013.
“Bloodlust hasn’t sung so sweetly, or provided so much theatrical fun, since Sweeney Todd first wielded his razor with gusto many a long year ago,” Charles Isherwood wrote in his review for The New York Times.
“Gentleman’s Guide” also became a surprise box-office hit after winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
“It’s almost Gilbert and Sullivan in its style,” says Dustin Williams, Wolfbane’s artistic director. “... It’s all these old devices, but it moves like rapid fire. And there’s literally no breaks in it.”
The classic musical elements don’t mean the Appomattox company has taken a conventional route when it comes to staging the production.
Wolfbane has built an entire theater “in a shopping plaza in Appomattox,” says Arpino. “Yup, sure did.”
While Wolfbane has used the space in Triangle Plaza Shopping Center, referred to by the company as the Wolf Den, for past productions, the creative team normally converts the unit into an immersive environment.
The space became Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop in last year’s “Sweeney Todd” and was transformed into the Kit Kat Club for this season’s “Cabaret.”
Inside a formerly vacant strip mall unit that’s been transformed into a Victorian pie shop, Sweeney Todd, his face scarred and eyes haunted, turns a shaving cream-covered victim away from the audience toward the wall. The music crests as the lights dim to a dark red.
For “Gentleman’s Guide,” the Wolf Den has been outfitted with a traditional opera house stage, complete with a proscenium arch, scalloped curtain and footlights. The production team has also created various pieces of scenery and eight hand-painted backdrops that will be moved on and off of the newly erected stage, adds Williams.
Most of the cast’s 10 actors are playing multiple roles, with one, New York-based Jacob Hoffman, portraying all eight members of the D’Ysquith family — leading to 110 costume changes over the musical’s 129-minute runtime.
There’s also more than 40 scene changes, and, on top of everything else, no stage crew, so the actors are bringing set pieces on and off themselves.
“And I never let the lights go out,” says Arpino. “So, all of this is happening while the show is going on. There’s no like, ‘Hold for a set change.’”
If that doesn’t scream Wolfbane, what does?