REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Occasionally we venture beyond the borders of Ventura County to see what is going on in Los Angeles, and on this occasion, we couldn’t resist taking in a performance of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which is currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown. The 2013 show won Tonys for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical after its initial Broadway run and is now currently on its first national tour.
Based on the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, the plot was also the basis for the 1949 British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, which starred Alec Guinness. The story deals with a poor commoner, Lord Montague “Monty” Navarro, who discovers he is the Ninth Earl of Highhurst, eligible to inherit his family’s riches, but only after the deaths of the eight relatives in the D’Ysquith family who are higher on the succession ladder. Monty decides to hasten this process by doing away with each relative, one by one, in increasingly outlandish and gruesome circumstances. The gimmick that makes the musical irresistible is that the eight relatives are all played by the same actor. Jefferson Mays famously played these roles on Broadway, but his replacement on the tour is the equally estimable John Rapson, a graduate of the fine arts school at the University of Michigan who made his Broadway debut in Les Miserables before embarking on the current tour.
There is nothing subtle about Gentleman’s Guide. It’s an old-fashioned black comic farce where all of the characters are broadly drawn and played strictly for laughs. There are no hidden meanings, morals, or lessons to be learned – Gentleman’s Guide is merely breezy entertainment with an often hilarious script, ludicrous sight gags, colorful costumes and sets, and a whimsical score. The gifted Rapson is from the Benny Hill school of comedy; brilliant at pantomime and quirky voices, from upper crust British accents to lowly Cockney. Having one actor play all eight parts is the stroke of genius that was taken from Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Guinness played multiple roles.
In Gentleman’s Guide, Rapson plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith clan, including dressing in drag as the self-serving philanthropic Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith and the appallingly bad actress, Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey. Rapson is simply terrific as all of the D’Ysquiths in a performance that has to be one of the most frantic and exhausting of any seen on the stage. Much of Gentleman’s Guide is reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, with their farcical premises, broadly drawn characters, and rapid-fire patter songs. Rapson easily prances through numbers like “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and, in what is probably the funniest song in the show, the sly, gay-referenced “Better With a Man.”
Playing Monty is fresh-faced Kevin Massey, who combines deft comic acting ability with a pleasing tenor and makes for a diabolically funny and lovable villain who we can’t possibly hate. We root for Monty to complete his ascent up the inheritance food chain because the D’Ysquiths are all so detestable and deserve what’s coming to them. The cartoonish way in which Monty dispatches with each one (seven of the eight are bumped off by the time the first act concludes) is part of the charm of the show. The D’Ysquith demises are things out of a Looney Tunes animated short; you can’t help but laugh at the ludicrously inventive ways the murders are committed. I won’t give any of these away; you have to see the show for yourself, but suffice it to say that they elicit enough belly laughs to make even the most stolid theater goer gasp for air.
Massey is joined by two exceptional actresses who play his dual love interests: Kristen Beth Williams as the vain, pink-obsessed teasing gold digger, Sibella, and Adrienne Eller as Monty’s squeaky/sexy cousin Phoebe. Monty juggles the two throughout the show, lusting after Sibella, who lures him on, but pushes him away due to his commoner status, and settling instead for the more devoted Phoebe. Massey, Williams, and Eller are uproarious in the show’s most famous sequence, the patter song, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” in which Monty is figuratively and literally caught between his two love interests, and a pair of constantly slamming doors.
Mary VanArsdel plays the mysterious Miss Shingle, a matronly housekeeper type whose role in the family scandal become clear at the end of the play, and Kristen Mengelkoch, who is a riot as Lady Eugenia, the coarse, shrewish wife of Lord Adalabert D’Ysquith, one of Rapson’s alter egos and targets of Monty’s treachery.
Rapson isn’t the only performer who plays multiple roles. The cast includes only eleven actors, with all but the principals playing a multitude of smaller roles. The colorful set is actually a stage situated on the larger stage, with its own set pieces and curtain. This masks a constantly changing projected backdrop, on which cleverly produced animations make the scenes even funnier.
The songs, which were written by Robert L. Freedman (who also wrote the book) and Steven Lutvak, are fun and tuneful, but are used in a utilitarian fashion. You won’t find many people humming them as they leave the theater, but they perfectly suit the circumstances for which each was written. (To this point, it’s worth mentioning that although Gentleman’s Guide won Tonys for the show and the book, it won none for the score, although it received a nomination.) Linda Cho’s sumptuous costume design is eye-catching and colorful, although probably hellacious work for Rapson, who is required to be constantly undergoing frantic costume changes, the fastest of which is executed in seventeen seconds.
Gentleman’s Guide is briskly directed by Darko Tresnjak. The superb scenic design is by Alexander Dodge, lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Lawrence Goldberg led the outstanding eleven-piece orchestra.
One has to be cautious when seeing a classic musical for the first time. You can only see it for the first time once, and if the show is spoiled by poor performances or chintzy production values (like in Theater League’s current tour of Ragtime, which features two synthesizers in place of an orchestra), it can ruin that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Before the show, Christopher Behmke, who plays several key ensemble roles in Gentleman’s Guide, told me, “For an actor, it’s very rare that you get to be a part of someone’s first impression of a show and it’s a special privilege to be part of this production. I love its spirit because that’s the reason it won the Tony.” If you didn’t get a chance to see this show when it was on Broadway, the national tour is certainly an excellent introduction to a soon-to-be classic.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder plays through May 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.