You’d think John Rapson would get tired of dying every night — eight times per night, to be exact.
As a star in the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and a former ensemble member in “Les Misérables,” he’s no stranger to death onstage. In “Gentleman’s Guide,” he plays eight characters — each of whom is swiftly dispatched by a jealous younger relative.
“I’ve been (dying) for the last six years,” Rapson said, calling from a tour stop in Seattle. “Maybe in the next show I’ll get to live a while longer.”
He’ll be dying Aug. 9-15 when the curtain goes up on “Gentleman’s Guide” at Starlight Theatre. A tale of deceit, comedy and lighthearted murder, the 2014 Tony Award winner for best musical tells the story of Monty Navarro, who finds out he’s part of a wealthy family that has hidden the truth from him his whole life. He reaches out to them, is instantly rebuffed and decides that he’ll do whatever it takes to become the next earl of Highhurst.
“He does what any aspiring gentleman would do and murders his way to the top,” Rapson said.
Kevin Massey, who plays Monty, originally understudied the role on Broadway. As the star, he remains onstage for almost the entirety of the show — with only about 1 1/2 minutes offstage. Starlight is the tour’s first outdoor venue, and Massey said he’ll try to hide even more water onstage than he usually does to keep him going.
“You have to be on the whole time, telling the story and focused,” he said. “It’s like a train: Once I’m on it, I’m on it for the whole ride.”
Unlike Rapson, this isn’t Massey’s first stop in Kansas City. He subbed in to play the title role for three nights in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2012 production of “Pippin,” and he performed at Starlight as Almanzo Wilder in the national tour of “Little House on the Prairie” in 2010. He also understudied the title role in the original Broadway production of “Tarzan,” which he said helped prepare him for the responsibility of playing Monty.
While he has to kill eight relatives to become the next earl, Monty is still likable, Massey said. He never directly kills anyone — just “helps them along the way” — and that allows the audience to forgive him.
Massey and Rapson both complimented the other’s skill in changing things up since the tour began last September in Chicago.
“You’re interacting differently every night,” he said. “We’re not robotic actors. We just ebb and flow depending on how the audiences are.”
Even though his characters don’t get to live long, Rapson said he approaches all eight — his “children” — from a fresh perspective every night. The characters include a stuffy old man, a young gay squire, a hardy old matron and a bodybuilding, vegetarian lord. Rapson’s favorite? Reverend Lord Ezekial, who’s “a little too fond of the communion wine.”
“The characters are just an absolute dream for a character actor to play,” he said. “Some of them are really, really nasty, and it’s something fun to sink your teeth into.”
Massey called it “a hilarious romp,” with farcical physical gags, dastardly humorous characters and a tricky love triangle. Both actors said they’ve seen audience members return during a run because they’ve enjoyed it so much.
“It’s one of those incredibly detailed rides at Disneyland, where I realize I didn’t see what was going on in that part because I was so focused on that other piece,” Rapson said.
“It’s the lowest high-brow or the highest low-brow,” he added. “If you like to laugh, there’s something for you in this piece.”