By Patrick Hurley
Devilishly funny, wickedly irreverent, and yet somehow agreeably nostalgic, the Tony-Winning Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a big sugary confection laced with arsenic.
Set in London in 1909, after the death of his destitute mother, Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) discovers that he and his mother are related to the extremely wealthy, and high-class D’ysquith family. In fact, Monty learns through nosy Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) that he is a distant heir to an enormous fortune, and the title of Earl. Succeeded by some eight other members of the D’ysquith family. Miss Shingle also informs Monty that his mother had indeed tried to contact the family to tell them of her and Monty’s existence, only to discover that the family had refused to acknowledge their existence. Monty then tries to infiltrate the D’ysquith family, merely looking for validation, and also to impress his gold-digging, narcissistic girlfriend Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), who is first seen fawning over herself in a mirror. Monty longs to marry Sibella, but she is only interested in marrying someone for wealth and status and believes love to be a preposterous reason to marry.
And so, Monty is determined to get what he feels is rightfully his place in the D’ysquith family. After a fateful incident involving a Reverend, a church tower, and a high wind, Monty realizes that he might be able to become Earl and inherit a fortune if he one-by-one knocks off each of the surviving eight members of the D’ysquith family. And the mayhem ensues.
The line of succession of the D’ysquith family are all portrayed by the same actor, John Rapson, as they all come to meet their demise. Among them are the lisping, seemingly inbred Reverend Lord Ezekial D’ysquith, who perishes in what is perhaps the most clever stage death of all time. Adalbert D’ysquith, who is so unhappily married that death would surely be preferable. The effeminate bee-keeper Henry D’ysquith, who prances through his scenes with a giddy childlike fervor, and joins Monty in the rousing, “Better with a Man,” A song that is pure innuendo. Then there’s the determined philanthropist Hyacinth D’ysquith, a woman hell-bent on making the world a better place, or at least letting people know that she wants to. She travels to the most dangerous parts of the world, at Monty’s suggestions, in what is one of the most purely enjoyable musical numbers of the evening “Lady Hyacinth Abroad.” And, in a truly ridiculous Mel Brooks-style scene, there is Lady Salomè D’ysquith Pumphrey an atrocious actress who murders a scene from Hedda Gabler, a scene which culminates in a hysterical offstage climax.
Then, as if the show needed more convolution, Monty meets and falls in love with Phoebe D’ysquith (Adrienne Eller), his cousin. And as he makes his way up the line of succession, he also has Sibella to contend with, who suddenly finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. Juggling the two women is a source of the show’s farce-like quality, particularly in the hilarious number “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” where Monty must keep his two paramours from seeing each other.
And of course, being a musical comedy, the show wraps up a bit too neat and tidy, but the enjoyment of getting there makes it all worthwhile. With a book by Robert L. Freedman, there are many theatrical tropes that are adhered to, and a few that are slightly satirized. Mr. Freedman plays up the theatricality while still allowing the piece to feel like a throwback to old-school musicals.
The songs, with music by Steven Lutvak, and lyrics by he and Freedman, have a nostalgic quality to them. They’re not exactly the catchy musical numbers that populate so many contemporary shows. And in fact, missing here is that show-stopping song that you won’t be able to get out of your head. The songs are sometimes witty, sometimes dark, and sometimes sweet, but always reminiscent of a time gone by, and almost always funny.
Director Darko Tresnjak uses every comedic trick he can, and it completely pays off. The heightened nature of the world calls for overly dramatic performances across the board, and indeed every movement feels deliberate and on-point. There isn’t an unpolished moment. This is also a credit to an incredible scenic designer, Alexander Dodge, who has created a fluid, authentic, and highly dramatic world. Same goes for costume designer Linda Cho, who has assembled a flawless look for each and every character.
And then there’s the performances. This is a wonderful ensemble, with everyone adding something special to each character. As Monty, Kevin Massey is superb. He is entirely relatable and charming, making his murderous journey one we revel in sharing with him. As Sibella, Kristen Beth Williams is pitch-perfect, both vocally and comically. Adrienne Eller is wonderful as overly sweet Phoebe. And John Rapson is extraordinary. His eight-part performance is a marvel. He is capable of such extreme feats of comedy for each one of them that it’s truly a shame every time another one of his dysfunctional D’ysquith’s meets with their untimely demise.
This production is a true joy from start to finish. A piece of lighthearted entertainment with a deeply wicked side. And though you probably won’t leave the theater humming any of the tunes, you will have a big smile on your face.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Opens Wednesday, March 23 at 8 p.m. Through May 1, 2016.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
- Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
- Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
- No Monday performances.
- Exceptions: Added 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, April 28. No 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, May 1. Ticket Prices: $25 – $130 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available • Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400
In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center Group Sales: 213.972.7231
Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ProjectDATE
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.