'A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder': Theater Review

'A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder' - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
No joke dies, no song falls flat and it couldn't be more fun.

The 2014 Tony winner for best musical arrives in Los Angeles on its national tour, with wit and charm to spare and an all-new cast.

Alec Guinness received no Oscar nomination for his pitch-black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, even though it was a career high point in which he played eight members of a noble family, each targeted by a gravely ambitious distant cousin. Few performers are eager to tread where idols have gone before, but don’t tell that to Jefferson Mays, who did Guinness one better, originating the nine roles of the D'Ysquith clan, doomed successors to the Earl of Highhurst, on Broadway in A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, based on the 1949 movie. His lauded performance only raised the bar for John Rapson, who brings down the house in the role in the Los Angeles tour stop of this gleefully subversive musical comedy.

Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) has never dreamed of murder until one day he learns from his recently deceased mother's friend, Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel), that he is eighth in line to the Earl of Highhurst. "A perfectly breedable D'Ysquith" in other words, even after his mother was shunned by the family for marrying a Castilian musician. When he informs his sweetheart, Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), of the good news, he is met with "Don't you just love me in pink?" That's the opening to "I Don't Know What I'd Do," her clever paean to herself and the edification she derives from teasing poor Monty. Anyway, she's decided to marry his rival, prematurely hedging her bets against a miraculous string of deaths suddenly striking the D'Ysquith clan.

A gust of wind nearly executes Monty's first victim, the buck-toothed, doltish Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith, as he perches at the edge of the belfry. Given the chance to lend a steadying hand, Monty simply abstains, allowing the clergyman to plunge to his death in front of projection designer Aaron Rhyne's cheeky Hitchcockian spiral. So simple it seemed hardly a murder at all, but Monty can bet they won't all be that easy. And the audience can bet on a string of inventive and hilarious homicides to come.

A compilation of Monty's greatest hits composes the spine of Robert L. Freedman's book, including murderous melodies like "Poison in My Pocket," in which he trails Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr. and his paramour to a stunning winter resort where they meet their end in an icy grave. "Better With a Man," a duet between Monty and the closeted Henry D'Ysquith, is a sprightly ditty celebrating the virtues of male companionship. That beekeeping D’Ysquith is undone by his buzzing wards in a swarm stirred by a suspiciously liberal dose of lavender scent. With his demise, not only does Monty emerge one step closer to the family fortune, but he meets his ladylove, the sweet, sincere and seemingly sinless Phoebe D'Ysquith (Adrienne Eller), who stands in stark contrast to the superficial, sexy and unreliable, Sibella.

The love triangle pays off in the second act with the show-stopping "I've Decided to Marry You," in which Monty hosts both Sibella and Phoebe simultaneously while each is unaware of the other. The farcical use of slamming doors and timed movement woven with three-part harmonies makes for a technically demanding number executed with a deceptively easy effervescence. As such, it represents everything that's right about Gentleman's Guide. While the score by Steven Lutvak offers complicated Sondheim-like sophistication (orchestrations are by frequent Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick), and the lyrics (co-written by Freedman and Lutvak) brim with crafty wordplay, the show succeeds in feeling as light as angel food cake.

Setting his story in Edwardian London, Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak adapts the period’s Gilbert & Sullivan operetta style and stages the action in designer Alexander Dodge’s proscenium within a proscenium. (A similar technique was employed on Tresnjak's subsequent production, The Ghosts of Versailles, for the L.A. Opera.) Directing a show as technically demanding as Gentleman's Guide seems akin to herding cats, but Tresnjak deftly tracks the inner life of his characters, observes the production's innumerable cues and seamlessly interweaves his blocking with Peggy Hickey's modest and amusing choreography.

Rapson’s resume includes several roles in Les Miserables, but nothing could prepare him for the demands of the D'Ysquith clan. His quick-change, multi-character, multi-faceted performance is reason enough to see the show, though hardly reason alone. As Monty, Massey comes fully equipped to anchor the touring production in a role he understudied on Broadway. He nimbly meets the show's technical and musical demands, but more importantly ensures his character remains sympathetic even while carrying out a murder spree. Williams makes a breathtaking Sibella, simultaneously wanton and vulnerable. With her sterling soprano and girlish recklessness, she offers a beguiling alternative to Eller's chirpy and straitlaced Phoebe, who is equally alluring in her own way.

While Kind Hearts and Coronets remains the source of Gentleman's Guide (though the official credit is the obscure novel on which that film was based), an obvious progenitor is Sweeney Todd. With their similar settings, quirky scores, witty wordplay and sardonic themes about privilege and poverty, both shows come packed with enough laughs to suggest that a little murder just might be a good thing.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: John Rapson, Kevin Massey, Kristen Beth Williams, Adrienne Eller, Christopher Behmke, Sarah Ellis, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Dani Marcus, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen, Mengelkoch, David Scott Purdy, Chuck Ragsdale, Ben Roseberry, Mary VanArsdel,
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Book: Robert L. Freedman, based on a novel by Roy Horniman
Music: Steven Lutvak

Lyrics: Robert L. Freedman, Steven Lutvak
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier

Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Musical director: Lawrence Goldberg
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Presented by Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, 50 Church Street Productions, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Rhoda Herrick, Kathleen K. Johnson, Jamie deRoy, Megan Savage, Four Ladies & One Gent, Richard Winkler, John Arthur Pinckard, True Love Productions, Catherine Adler, Jamie & Bruce Bendell, Michael T. Cohen, Joseph & Carson Gleberman, Exeter capital/Stewart Lane & Bonnie Comley, Ted Snowdon/Joe Sirola, in association with Hartford Stage, The Old Globe