From the opening disclaimer song, A Warning to the Audience, the Tony-award winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder teases that the homicidal humor offers something other than an enjoyable evening at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The somber ensemble warns “For those of you of weaker constitution, for those of you who may be faint of heart, this is a tale of revenge and retribution. So if you’re smart, before we start … you’d best depart.” However, those who heed the warning would be missing out on a clever, well-designed show with a talented cast.
Gentleman’s Guide blends British upper class bluster (with an home worthy of Lord Grantham), flagrant farce, murderous intrigue and a romantic triangle of sorts with a winning cast. It is not a modern musical (even though it is only three years old) by any stretch of the imagination. The operetta-like singing and Edwardian comedy of manners is closer in feel to Gilbert and Sullivan than to recent Broadway musicals penned by Lin-Manual Miranda and/or Robert Lopez. However, the surprise hit show scored big at the 2014 Tony Awards claiming the big prize – Best Musical, along with Best Director of a musical for Darko Tresnjak, Best Book for Robert L. Freedman and Best Costume Design for Linda Cho.
The plot of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is pretty simple. Penniless Monty Navarro (played by the winsome, engaging Kevin Massey) find out his newly deceased mother, a hard-working charwoman, was a highborn D’Ysquith. She had been disowned after she ran off Monty’s father, a Castilian musician. The likable, charming Monty decides to bump off all the relatives ahead of him i
n succession for the Earldom. His amusingly portrayed methods include a little shove, drowning, “accidental” decapitation, real bullets in a prop gun, bee stings and a tribe of cannibals.Eventually, as the line of succession shrinks, the ensemble sings, “Why are all the D’Ysquiths dying? It seems that all of London’s shaken to the core. To lose one relative, one can certainly forgive, but how can you excuse losing two, or three, or four … or seven?”
There are two central gimmicks in the show: One is that the serial killer is a charming underdog who is so likable. The other is all of those unfortunate D’Ysquiths, male and female, are played by one actor (John Rapson). While some of the characterizations seemed repetitive, the amazingly quick transformations required to portray nine different D’Ysquith relations make it a demanding role.
Monty initially is in love with superficial social-climber Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams), who decides to marry someone else with wealth and position, though her heart belongs to him. As he climbs the succession rungs, he become far more appealing. Monty, however, meets his true love, the sweet Phoebe D’Ysquith (Adrienne Eller), who is not an impediment on the anti-hero’s road to the Earldom.
The love triangle sets up the show’s best-executed number, I’ve Decided to Marry You. The stage rendition was far more cleverly done and fabulously sung live at the Ahmanson than the version performed at the Tony Awards two years ago that seemed uninteresting. The slamming doors and physical antics as Monty tries to keep the two women apart in his flat, combines with the harmonies make the number the show’s highlight.
Besides the well-executed roles, the staging is a star. The use of video to capture the deaths is brilliant, such as when one D’Ysquith falls down a spiral staircase or the bees attack another relative. Some of the A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder sets appear cheekily simplistic, such as the ice skating scene, but the video and movement is delightful.
The Gentleman’s Guide musical closed on Broadway earlier this year. But, anyone in L.A. looking for an enjoyable evening should check out A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder at the Ahmanson through May 1. The North American tour continues in Houston, Texas, May 4 – 15; Toronto, Ontario, May 25 – June 26, and Seattle, Wash., July 12 – 31, 2016.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance March 23
Center Theatre Group: A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder
Photo of Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella, Kevin Massey as Monty and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D’Ysquith by Joan Marcus – Courtesy of Center Theatre Group
Photo of John Rapson as Henry D’Ysquith, Megan Loomis, and Massey by Joan Marcus – Courtesy of Center Theatre Group