OnStage Los Angeles Critic
If you’re looking for a clever, imaginative, fun evening in Los Angeles this spring, look no further than Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, where the national tour of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened this week. Winner of four 2014 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this musical comedy is an imaginative romp that left the opening night audience in stitches.
Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, Gentleman’s Guide follows Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a poor man who learns upon his mother’s death that he’s a distant heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune. He concocts a plan to eliminate (translation: murder) the eight D’Ysquiths who precede him in line for the title of Earl of Highhurst. One of the most unique elements of the musical is the choice to have the entire D’Ysquith family played by one actor—in this case, the fantastic John Rapson.
The basic conceit of the plot could not be simpler, which gives the production team a lot of freedom to approach every scene and twist in truly inventive ways. Each unfortunate D’Ysquith death is more creative than the one before it in a way that gives even the Final Destination series a run for its money. This is all brought to life on Alexander Dodge’s extremely lush and impressive sets, which offer much freedom to Darko Tresnjak’s inspired, Tony-winning direction. The staging finds unexpected ways to bring to life an outdoor skating rink, a precarious bell tower, and even a swarm of bees. Everything about the production screamed Broadway-quality.
Also top notch was the relatively small cast of eleven. Even when Monty was at his scheming worst, Massey made him someone you actively wanted to root for, as well as a load of fun to watch. Rapson, playing a whopping nine characters, both male and female, never missed a beat, pulling off stunningly fast costume changes and character switches with excellent comedic timing. Both leading men were also extremely capable singers, nimbly navigating their way through the rather complicated musical numbers.
The secondary plot features a love triangle between Monty and two women—Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), who refuses to marry someone as poor as Monty despite the fact that they’re in love, and Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), a classy, distant D’Ysquith cousin who is clearly the perfect choice to one day be his countess. Both actresses were fantastic, and this storyline is responsible for what I found to be the most memorable song in the show, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” which features hilarious, farcical staging.
The show is quite dense and long, with even just act one clocking in at nearly 90 minutes. While no specific scene or plot point really overstayed its welcome, with the exception of one number we’ll discuss in a moment, there was simply a lot going on. Perhaps the show would have benefitted from six D’Ysquith heirs to be eliminated rather than eight. The one number that missed the mark for me was “Lady Hyacinth Abroad,” in which Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a selfish, misguided “philanthropist” embarks on excessively dangerous missions to several foreign countries at Monty’s suggestion. Although it is definitely meant to be satirical, the humor went a little too far across the line of politically incorrect for me, and it was the only time the audience laughter seemed to be stemming a bit from discomfort.
Ultimately, Steven Lutvak’s music is this musical’s weakest point. While perfectly sufficient in context, I did not find it memorable enough to warrant a second listen. The charm of this show—and boy, is it charming—lies in the total package. In many ways, it feels like classic, old-fashioned musical theater, with unique staging choices that set it apart. Overall, Gentleman’s Guide is the definition of a fun night at the theater, with plot twists that will keep you guessing until the curtain falls.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1st before moving on to other cities across the country. Tickets for Los Angeles range from $25-$130 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. For information about future tour stops, please visit www.agentlemansguidebroadway.com/tour.php.