Who knew love and murder could be such fun? “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”, on-stage at TPAC‘s Jackson Hall through Sunday, could be described as what one might get if they mixed a gorgeously costumed, perfectly sung, brightly colored Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera with the macabre humor of Charles Addams or, to give it a more modern reference, Tim Burton. Either way, it’s the most enjoyable night of musical theatre I’ve experienced in some time.
Based on a 1907 novel,”Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal”, which also served as the source material for 1949’s British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” starring Dennis Price and Alec Guinness, “Gentleman’s Guide” tells the tale of Monty Navarro, a young man of less than favorable station, who discovers he’s actually related to the D’Ysquiths, a wealthy, affluent Edwardian-era family. Only trouble is, he’s ninth in line to the family fortune and therefore, the only way he will ever take his rightful place is if all eight relatives meet their untimely death, so of course he plots to murder them all. With tongue firmly planted in cheek the opening number literally and hilariously cautions what’s afoot with “A Warning to the Audience”.
Played with engaging, albeit murderous aplomb by Kevin Massey, the audience is rooting for Monty to pursue his rightful succession regardless of who he has to murder in the process. That’s right, when the dastardly plot is revealed, the audience laughs and cheers! Massey is charming and seems to regret his method of advancement every step of the way…or does he?
As the show begins, Monty is seen writing about his dastardly deeds in his diary whilst awaiting his fate in a jail cell. With that, the story unfolds via “flashback”.
Written by Robert L. Freedman (who, as a screenwriter, is best known for 1997’s television adaptation of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”) with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, “Gentleman’s Guide” received four Tonys during its debut Broadway season.
As Guinness did in the aforementioned 1949 film, John Rapson appears alongside Massey as his primary obstacle, or should I say obstacles, as Rapson, through the laugh-inducing fine art of the quick-change, appears and reappears throughout the show playing each and every one of Monty’s victims. My personal favorite is probably Lord Adalbert, which brings to mind Harvey Korman as any number of upper-crust characters he played so absurdly during his time on “The Carol Burnett Show”. Then again, Rapson proves he’s just as adept at a variety of comedic turns with Henry, whose not-so-ambiguously innuendo-filled “Better with a Man” is simply comedy gold. Oh and, yes, Rapson also tackles the fun of comedic drag as two of the fairer sexed D’Ysquith family members. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Starting things off brilliantly, Monty opts to off his victims in numerical order, from eighth in line to last, therefore, his first target is Reverend Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith. Monty visits the Reverend, a bit of a dotty older gentleman, who seems genuinely happy to learn that Monty is part of the family. During a quick tour of the family’s ancestral cathedral, Monty and the Reverend find themselves high atop the church on a rather conveniently (for Monty, anyway) blustery day. A little too close tot the edge and the Reverend plummets to his death. This scene, with hints of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is cleverly brought to life…or should I say death?…by way of a large projection screen behind the actors, courtesy of the show’s fantastic creative team including Aaron Rhyne, as projection designer, sound design by Dan Moses and scenic designer Alexander Dodge.
Speaking of Dodge’s scenic design, the stage itself is given the illusion of a smaller more intimate, but still visually stunning stage, the type you might have seen in grand palace theaters of the Victorian/Edwardian era, with ornately carved molding framing the actors. Even the set is full of surprises, during two numbers, statues and paintings literally come to life, but I’ll leave the details of that a mystery for those planning to attend.
Seemly simple, yet intricately designed, the stage lends itself perfectly to the time period of the action, while simultaneously reminding its modern audience that not all musical theatre experiences have to rely on state-of-the-art special effects. That said, thanks to the aforementioned projection system, subsequent D’Ysquith demises involve everything from killer bees to a deadly afternoon of ice skating.
As the show’s title infers, murder is only part of the plot. There’s also the subject of love. To that end, Monty is initially involved with Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward. Williams, dressed in gorgeous period-authentic bustled gowns by costumer Tony-winner Linda Cho, evokes images of Jeanette McDonald or even a sassier version of Nell Finwick, the frequent damsel in distress from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”‘s Dudley Doo Right segments. But Williams’ Sibella is no damsel, although she causes quite a bit of distress. Even though she professes her love for him in the mostly self-centered “I Don’t Know What I’d Do”, she refuses Monty’s proposal primarily because she wants a man with money. Even though she marries another, she keeps coming back to Monty.
Of course, what would be the fun if Sibella were Monty’s only love interest? Enter Kristen Hahn as Phoebe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin whom Monty meets when he murders her brother, he of the above-mentioned bee incident. Hahn’s Phoebe is just as gorgeous as Sibella, but she’s actually sweet, kind and gentle, more a match for Monty, save his murderous ways. Her musical highlight comes with “inside Out” a sweet song about honesty and wearing your heart on your sleeve.
If there’s one moment that defines “Gentleman’s Guide”, for it’s style, humor and all-around farcical nature, it’s “I’ve Decided to Marry You”, during which Monty hides a visiting Sibella in one room while Phoebe professes her marital intent in another. Director Darko Tresnjak, throughout the play, but in particular during this scene, give the audience everything great and hilarious about the slamming doors of classic farces like “Noises Off”.
The supporting actors are just as enchanting and engaging as the primary characters. From Mary VanArsdel’s Mrs. Shingle, the absent-minded family friend who informs Monty of his birthright, to Ben Roseberry’s Chief Inspector Pinckney, who perfect channels Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes as he investigates the strange and multiple demise of the D’Ysquith clan, the cast and the larger-than-life, over-the-top characters they portray help make “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” a perfectly silly, yet thoroughly entertaining night at the theatre.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” continues at TPAC’s Jackson Hall with performances through Sunday, January 29. Click Here for tickets. Following the Nashville dates, “Gentleman’s Guide” will then continue its current tour with dates in Orlando, Buffalo, Cost Mesa and Sacramento, though March. For more information about the show, Click Here. Be sure and ‘like’ “Gentleman’s Guide” on Facebook and follow the show on Twitter for the latest. Be sure and hashtag all your “Gentleman’s Guide” love with #GGLAM.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”, be sure and check out my recent Rapid Fire interview with members of the cast and don’t forget to subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.