Theater Review: Quirky ‘GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER’ Tour Kills at OC’s Segerstrom Center
Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Genuinely one of the funniest musical comedies to ever grace Broadway, “A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER” easily proves quite early on—and pretty much throughout its two uproarious acts—why it won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical. Filled with hilarious sight gags, wickedly witty banter, and some of the silliest characters to ever be dropped into a musical (many of which are portrayed by one actor in a dizzying tour-de-force), the show’s first national tour continues its way-too-short, week-long stop at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through March 5.
This O.C. stop is now my second helping of the superb touring production (I saw it first back in Spring 2016 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre), and I have to confess—this show truly gets better with each viewing. Because the show lobs so many amusing bon mots at you at break-neck (hehe) speed, repeat viewers who may have previously been too busy laughing to catch every one of its gags will get rewarded with new, hilarious discoveries each time. Also, those who never caught the show during its 2013 Old Globe Theatre pre-Broadway run in San Diego may want to make the drive to Costa Mesa to check out this top-notch tour iteration.
Adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, this unexpected gem of a musical comedy is helmed by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak, and features smart-aleck book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and lovely music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. But the show’s songs—fine and playfully melodic as they are—aren’t the only reasons why this musical is such a wonderfully entertaining show.
With its ingenious pacing and non-stop barrage of over-the-top silliness, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE modernizes the comedy of manners, infusing its brand of farce with hilarity that all audiences with different comedic tastes can appreciate equally. Those looking for high-brow British wit and low-brow juvenile high-jinks will be absolutely delighted by the way this musical effortlessly blends both comedy styles together.
And what is ultimately remarkable about the show is its ability to sustain its comedic momentum throughout, essentially one upping everything that happened in previous scenes with equally outrageous circumstances if not more. At no point does the musical lag in pacing—quite a smart feat for what is essentially a “period” piece in the age of short-attention spans and 140-character digital rants.
During the show’s opening night performance in the O.C. the laughter was indeed infectious throughout the packed house. I even found myself laughing in places that most audience members probably shouldn’t even find funny (a silly facial expression here or an affected line delivery there had me spontaneously bursting in laughter all by myself at various points).
Musically, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE’s orchestra—led by musical director Lawrence Goldberg—sounds robust accompanying the terrific voices of the cast. Visually, the musical is just spectacular: Aaron Rhyne’s and Alexander Dodge’s respective production and scenic designs are arrestingly eye-popping. The show’s own ornate on-stage proscenium theater that sits smack-dab in the center is a like a sophisticated human-size puppet show that opens up to reveal one gorgeous room after another, often accentuated with beautiful animated projections that add dynamic, geographical context. Linda Cho’s billowing, turn-of-the-century-era costumes (which won her a Tony) coupled with Charles G. LaPointe’s Wigs and Brian Strumwasser’s make-up allow the small ensemble (and one hard-working actor in particular) to appear and reappear as different characters with distinguishable features. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design tie it all together to provide various theatrical canvases that suit its respective scenes.
And at the center of it all is a pair of actors that truly make this a must-see production.
I’m happy to see that one year later, both John Rapson and Kevin Massey are still touring with the show, because I vividly recall how incredible both musical theater actors were in the tour’s first Southern California stop in Los Angeles. Massey, who plays Monty Navarro—the aforementioned “gentleman” in A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE—makes for an appealing anti-hero that the audience roots for wholeheartedly, despite the not-so-legal things his character does in the musical. It probably helps that vocally talented Massey is dripping in charm and dashing sex appeal when he's not dripping in his victims' blood (and “no worries” to those of you with faint hearts, the show is not a gore-fest like most murder-centric fiction tends to be).
And, my gosh, the undeniably talented Rapson is just phenomenal—brilliantly portraying not one, not two, but NINE (!) different characters: all various members of the musical’s central clan, the D’Ysquith family. For two and a half hours per show, Rapson valiantly portrays a different D’Ysquith of varying ages, genders, and mental stabilities, and each one noticeably discernible between one another in mannerism and personality (yet, at various points, you can tell they’re all somewhat, uh, related to each other).
And each time, with every costume change, the actor brings his comedic A-game and deservedly earns the loudest cheers of the night. This guy, in my opinion, is pretty much enough of its own reason to go see this production of A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE.
The musical itself is set in London, 1909 where—after an ominous warning to the audience about what we’re about to witness—we meet Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro (Massey) in his jail cell penning his confessional memoirs. The reason behind the tell-all? Well, he feels it is very possible that he is to be executed the next day should he be found guilty of murder. Naturally, he calls his book “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
We flash back two years earlier where we see the more modest-looking (as in less wealthy) Monty, housed in very, well, modest accommodations. His mother, Isobel—a lowly washerwoman by trade—has just died.
While in mourning, a family friend (allegedly) named Ms. Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) shows up to reveal to Monty that his mother was, in fact, a former member of the aristocracy. Monty’s mom, apparently, comes from the very prominent D’Ysquith family in Highhurst. She was reportedly kicked out of the family because she had decided to elope with a Spaniard (Monty’s father). Ashamed of her past, Monty’s mother kept her true identity a secret from her son—despite the fact that it meant that Monty is actually a rightful heir to the D’Ysquith’s riches and titles in Highhurst.
This alarming piece of news encourages Monty to not only write a letter to the head of the D’Ysquith family-owned banking business Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. for a possible job, but also to declare (again) his devotion to the very posh Miss Sibella Hallward (the exquisite Kristen Beth Williams). Though they are passionately in love, Sibella isn’t too keen to marry Monty, who she deems—despite this news about his possible lineage—still quite poor and beneath her station. She has agreed to marry another suitor, Lionel Holland, who already comes from wealth and privilege, and is more likely able to keep Sibella in the lifestyle she’s already so accustomed to living. Not surprisingly, Monty is heartbroken.
And even so, Sibella points out one obvious flaw with Monty’s news: eight people have to die before he becomes the Ninth Earl of Highhurst.
After receiving a rather curt (but surprisingly speedy) reply from Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr.’s detestable son Asquith Jr.—who expresses his vehement opposition to the validity of his claim—Monty decides to go to Highhurst and confront them with proof. But his visit is short-lived, because during a “tour” of the castle—where Monty hides himself among the gawky tourists—the current Earl, Lord Adalbert throws him out after catching the young lad in the estate’s library where a scared Monty just got an earful from the dead ghosts of past D’Ysquiths.
Despite this, Monty presses on with his quest by arranging a meeting with Reverend D’Ysquith, a gross, loony, drunken old man who serves as a clergyman at the D’Ysquith ancestral church. Though the Reverend empathizes with Monty’s plight (and even remembers the kindness of Monty’s mother), he refuses to help his cause, weary of any involvement with a family scandal.
Fortunately for Monty, a well-timed strong gust of wind and the Reverend’s own drunkenness as they tour high above the tallest tower in the church provides Monty with a possible means to exact his revenge on the family that so easily dejected his mother. With some initial hesitation, Monty decides not to help the Reverend, teetering on the edge of the tower. Soon enough… SPLAT! The first of eight D’Ysquiths in line for the Earldom of Highhurst has fallen to his death.
Thus begins Monty’s new directive: to eliminate every single D’Ysquith one-by-one, bringing him one step closer to his rightful place. As this is a musical comedy, each “murder” Monty tries to commit becomes more elaborate and, yes, funnier. There are even times when they become so much more complex and convoluted as more ridiculous obstacles pile up before him, rendering some of his best laid plans unsuccessful (well, at first). But Monty’s pluck (and, yeah, luck) is an asset, helping him think well on his feet and allowing him to improvise with the best of them.
Two unexpected surprises: First, after the womanizing Lord Asquith Jr. plunges to his icy death (you’ll know what I mean when it happens), his kindly (and grieving) father Lord Asquith Sr., hires Monty after all, apologizing for his son’s earlier letter. Soon, Monty proves himself as a hard worker, rising up the ranks at the bank. This, of course, makes Sibella like him more, despite her marriage to Lionel.
The other surprise for Monty? Well, in the midst of his murder spree—and his ongoing affair with Sibella—he finds himself falling in love with the widow of one his victims, the sweet Miss Phoebe D’Ysquith (ethereal soprano Kristen Hahn), who was previously married to distant cousin Henry, an avid beekeeper and, perhaps, heterosexually challenged. Yes, on top of trying to stay untouched by the law, Monty now has to contend with a love triangle as well!
As more and more D’Ysquiths die off, prompting society to gossip about this inexplicable curse, Monty sets his sights on offing one last D’Ysquith, the very one who threw him out of Highhurst two years earlier. Will he get away with it or will he bumble something along the way? Well, not to spoil too much, but, well… he does end up in jail as evidenced at the top of the show.
Deliciously devious and sprinkled generously with rapier wit, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE is so much fun to watch. It is ridiculous and campy in the classiest of ways, a winning, utterly hilarious hybrid of high and low brow humor that allows audiences to feel a bit naughty vicariously through the nonchalant (but charming) serial killing performed by a young man hell bent on exacting revenge on the very people that “robbed” him and his mother their rightful place among the nobility. The very nature of its preposterous plot and its bouncy music is so absurdly out there that its comedic richness seems unbound.
Thus we end up unapologetically cheering on our intrepid anti-hero for his ingenuity rather than gasp at his very, very bad behavior. The musical’s way of straddling dark comedy with buoyant silliness is exactly why everyone can feel good heartily laughing at all of the show’s giddy fun.
And, did I mention this one guy playing multiple roles like a comedy genius bad-ass? Yeah, it’s there and you’re going to want to witness it in all its wonderfully hilarious glory for yourself.
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Photos from the National Tour of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in OnStage.
Performances of the National Tour of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, March 5, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.