You know what’s hilarious? Murder. Especially the mass murder of family members. If you doubt it, see “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” The charming show, with music and lyrics by Broadway newcomers Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, is a winner. Literally. It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2014 and won four, including the coveted statue for best new musical.
The story is darkly comic, with action following hard-working but poor Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey). After his mother dies, Monty discovers he’s the distant heir to a family fortune. Snubbed by his rich relations, the D’Ysquith family, Monty decides to kill everyone in the way of his inheritance. Thus springs the murder.
The love part comes as Monty juggles a pair of archetypal women. Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) is the striving vixen he lusts for. Phoebe (Adrienne Eller) is the innocent aristocratic girl he wants to marry.
Be forewarned: It’s a throwback. This is not “Rent” or “Hamilton.” There’s no rock or rap, or even a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style show tune. With the bouncy light opera score, the delight in lyrical wordplay and absurd plot driven by British class conflict, the show clearly nods to Gilbert and Sullivan, and it’s satisfying to see an old genre so lovingly revived.
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The highlight is a bit of thespian pyrotechnics. The entire murdered D’Ysquith family, all eight characters, are played by the same actor, John Rapson. It must be a phenomenally fun role — or, rather, roles — to play, and Rapson does so with relish.
Granted, it’s a gimmick. But a fun one, refreshing for its unpretentiousness. So much of the acting that modern audiences see, after all, descends from the method style. Performers replicate as closely as possible the way humans actually behave. The cartoonish characters of “Guide,” particularly Rapson’s virtuosic performance, serve a different aesthetic. The quick-change shenanigans revel in the magic of theater, a shared joy in how costume, accent and body language can transform one person into another.
Beyond Rapson, Massey is strong as Monty, letting sly evil seep in as his body count rises. Love interests Williams and Eller bring strong sopranos. Mary Van Arsdel, playing the servant Miss Shingle, steals every scene she’s in.
The production deserves particular praise, especially the innovative set by Alexander Dodge. It’s a sort of a stage-within-a-stage, featuring an ornate Edwardian proscenium and the quietly brilliant use of digital projections.
As for any moral message, don’t bother. This is, after all, a play where murder is something silly, a la “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Yes, there is light proselytizing, as when “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” mocks the condescension of do-gooders. Generally, though, the show is mere farcical fun.
But let’s not get caught up in subtext. “Gentleman’s Guide” is a silly, sometimes witty, always loving revival. Solidly performed and wonderfully staged, the play shows that even murder can be funny if you do it right.