It may have claimed the Best Musical Tony in 2014, but this is not quite the average “Best Musical,” and one might argue against the merits of its title, much like how its anti-hero “earns” his social climbing.
Although the critically-acclaimed Broadway run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has retired—or kicked the bucket—in January 2016, the U.S. tour production has made a pit-stop at the Houston Hobby Center.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder lacks the classic criteria of “deep meaningful” musical, which is conspicuous in the current crusade of meaningful plays that shoot for the stars like Les Miserables or the revolutionary Hamilton. Other Tony-acquainted line-ups, Book of Mormon was a satire with heart, Fun Home was an intimate examination of familial dynamics, and If/Then, while not a Best Musical Tony nominee, was a meditation on life choices. A Gentleman’s Guide falls in-line on the spectrum of the farcical The Producers where we root for amorality.
Now I bring up these aforementioned shows despite not experiencing all of them live due to limited accessibility of Broadway-originated musical theatre, but I’m acquainted with the soundtracks, which contains much of the plot blueprints. Listening to the lyricism of A Gentleman’s Guide, there’s a fun smart tune here and there with a coherent narrative and not much more.
Other than poking fun at literary sensibilities, the rickety stability of romance, and the “loose ethics” of social climbing, Gentleman’s Guide offers scant human observations to ponder over after curtain call.
But the lack of “meaning” should be a trifle. It perhaps renders Gentleman’s Guide a refreshing break from the realm of highbrow entertainment, though the word “highbrow” can apply to its style of dark comedy. I would be doing a disservice for jutting my myopic intellectual desires onto a product that is purposefully content in its sophisticated silliness and unadulterated amorality. The musical is a succession of comedic setpieces with punchlines, threaded by a coherent farce. And death, a plethora of death. But it practices its high production values and Victorian aesthetic with restraint and focuses on dishing out the humor rather than distracting the audience with bloated orchestrations and flashiness that over-budgeted musicals could fall trap into.
The play opens with the Ensemble giving fair warning, not unlike Chicago, but told through Victorian semantics—the show is not for “those weak of constitution.” A batty old Miss Single (Mary Vanarsdel) visits the home of poor Monty Narravo (Kevin Massey) to inform him that his late mother was once an heiress, cruelly disinherited by her aristocratic and affluent family, and cast her aside in poverty. Monty is the last in the wealthy D’Ysquith’s (yes, it shares an identical pronunciation to “dies quick”) line of succession toward fortune and the Earl title. Emboldened, Monty writes to his newfound relatives for aid only to be shunned.
Sick of cruel rejections, Monty decides the solution would be to murder the D’Ysquiths standing between him and the Earl station. After all, the often morally bankrupt D’Ysquiths are less deserving of riches and more deserving of living up to their conveniently punny surname. Along the way, he forges a love triangle between the ditzy Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and the seemingly pious Belle-smart but also ditzy Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), who may appear to be the “good girl” to Sibella’s spiciness, though she has a downplayed “bad girl” side of her that becomes a plot point.
If that sounds like the brand of musical where Act I is the comedy but the Act II descends into psychological tragedy (a-la Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd where consequences attack in Act II), rest assured (or to a critical theatre-goer looking for something “deep,” to let you down gently), Gentleman’s Guide hangs wholeheartedly on laughs, whether it’s through the pantomime, Robert Freeman and Steven Lutvak’s lyrical wordplays and bouncy velocity of the patter songs, deft presentation of prop magic (like the confetti-flare for a gunshot wound or a sidesplitting decapitation), or physical comedy timed against the backdrop of a vibrant projector screen. My favorite effect—and “dying” sequence—is the sleight of sways and tilts of the projection of a Cathedral tower as the first D’Ysquith victim teeters to his demise. Though ask various audience members, they’ll likely pick their own personal favorite “deaths” or admit, “it’s hard to pick one.”
The cast is a solid-go. The leading Kevin Massey plays the anti-hero with a believable co-existence of perkiness, self-entitlement, and nobleness for comical and affable effect. Both leading ladies Williams and Eller do justice to their ditziness, and both actresses offers their ladies touch of tortured pathos and charm in roles that don’t require their characters to exceed dimension. Most unforgettably, John Rapson, his name dominating the playbill cast list, has the weight—literally too, due to bulging costumes—of rotating around eight of the D’Ysquith relatives, each flamboyant in their own manner, even if they (with the exception of the token kind D’Ysquith, who luckily doesn’t die by Monty’s hands so not to slip the plot into cynicism) share the same pettiness and hedonist tendencies without letting their overlapping temperaments feel rehashed. Talk about dying repeatedly for your art.
The songs ranges from serviceable to hilarious. Other than wordplay, the lyricism is composed solely for comedy, the synchronization of rhythm and stage blocking, and Monty’s amoral contemplations. The “I’ve Decided to Marry You” sequence, which was the presentation at the 2014 Tony Awards, is impressive due to the nimble exploitation of two props doors as Monty rotates between chatting with his two mistresses while concealing their existence to the other in a foreplay of movement and door slams.
The result is a farcical piece where you haven’t experienced an a remarkable story or any elevated emotions except laughter, but a “Well, that was hilarious” can just be enough.
It will end its run in Houston by May 15th Sunday.