A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder begins with a disclaimer, in the form of a song called “A Warning to the Audience.” The ensemble, posed in an Edward Gorey-esque tableau, let’s us know what we are in for:
For those of you of weaker constitution
For those of you who may be faint of heart
This is a tale of revenge and retribution
So if you’re smart
Before we start
You’d best depart
You’d best depart
The show might have begun, however, with a disclaimer of another sort; something along the lines of, “For those of you who like your musicals to seem as if they were written in the 21st Century, you’d best depart.”
Although A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder won the Tony for Best Musical of 2014, there isn’t much about it that wouldn’t have felt right at home in, say, 1950.
Of course, if you look at the telescope through the other end, one could trumpet its appeal for those who like their musicals more, shall we say, old-fashioned; in this case, in the mold of post-Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The music is bouncy, the lyrics are clever, the story is diverting (if not demanding), and the entire enterprise has wit and charm to spare.
Certainly, the near-capacity audience for the opening night at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, which cheered heartily at the curtain call, was in the mood for a new musical that brings to mind a past era.
They were watching the touring production of a somewhat unexpected Broadway hit. Unlike most current shows, it was neither adapted from a (presumably) sure-fire source, such as a hit movie, nor was it powered by big stars in the cast. The creative team doesn’t have mega-hit track records.
Nevertheless, many involved believed strongly in the show. The producers saw it through some slow weeks, before strong notices led to awards and to a more-than-respectable run of a couple of years (just ending in New York) and, now, a national tour.
It’s all based on a movie (itself loosely based on a novel), the classic British black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. If, like me, you grew up here in the 70s, when a day off from school meant getting to watch the sensational world cinema (from the Rank collection) that Channel 26 would show every weekday at 2pm, you no doubt remember that film.
The plot is pretty simple: ambitious, struggling young man learns that he is, surprisingly, in line to inherit a title. He goes about bumping off the unfortunates that stand between him and it.
The gimmick is that all of those unfortunates are played by one actor. In the film, it was the remarkable Alec Guinness. On Broadway, it was the wonderful Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony for the solo play I Am My Own Wife (I saw him do it twice), and probably would have won a second, had this show not run in same season as the Hedwig revival starring Neil Patrick Harris.
The show did win a Tony for its director, Darko Tresnjak, and deservedly so. The staging is wonderful, as clever as the most scintillating of the show’s lyrics (by Robert L. Freedman, who also wrote the book), as bright as the peppy score (by Steven Lutvak, who also contributed lyrics).
In fact, it is the ingeniousness of Tresnjak’s efficient and evocative story-telling that is the most memorable aspect of the evening. There are images that call to mind not only Gorey, but also Hitchcock — well, maybe Hitchcock by way of Mel Brooks, I thought, while laughing when watching a fall involving the spiral staircase in a church tower.
Tresnjak is aided immensely in this not only by his designers of set (Alexander Dodge), costumes (Linda Cho, who also got a Tony for her work on the show), and lighting (Philip S. Rosenberg), but also by Aaron Rhyne, who designed the projections. Many of those are truly gorgeous, and will bring to mind Impressionist paintings. It is the technology involved in this aspect of the show that is the chief indicator that A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a product of the 2010’s.
Tresnjak also must be given credit for the splendid work of an exceptional cast. The voices are impressively strong uniformly, whether in the solo singing, or in the choral work. And, after the complaints about acoustics that attended the recent stay of Matilda next door at the Opera House, I’m pleased to report that there is no trouble hearing the piece. Though it isn’t sung-through, the bulk of the show is song, not dialogue scenes. It’s so important, when the lyrics convey so much story, that they are as clear as they are here.
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER
January 13 – 30
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $249
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Our (anti?) hero is one Monty Navarro, played by Kevin Massey. From row Q, Massey is Tony Goldwyn-good-looking, and he gets a work-out. In one number, while singing, he bends to nearly a horizontal position. In a second act number, he keeps sharp delineation between inner and outer thoughts. That made me wish that so much of his narration wasn’t pre-recorded. Nevertheless, he gives an impressive, wonderfully sung performance. His early number “Foolish to Think” is a kind-of lighter analog to Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” and was the chance — which he took — for Massey to reel in the audience, who remained in the palm of his hand throughout the evening.
John Rapson fills the Guinness/Mays shoes. His performance is so chameleon-like that I imagine there could be some in the audience who don’t even realize that the unprepossessing man strolling on in Edwardian garb is the same actor that, seconds before, was in outrageous drag.
When Rapson is on the mark, he really is on the mark, and I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed with this tour-de-force. I wish I could say that I admired all of his characters with equal enthusiasm. However, I felt as if the laugh employed for the effeminate Henry was not organic, as if Rapson was dutifully recreating something that had been created by and had worked for Mays — although perhaps I would have disliked that choice had I seen Mays do it.
And I felt that the one misstep Tresnjak makes is at the top of the second act, when Rapson’s Lord Adalbert and his wife bray at each other for a gratingly long time. The subtlety that is otherwise a pleasing part of the mix makes, then, a regrettable exit for about twenty minutes. Both actors are terrific and I can’t fault the way they execute the style, so I blame Tresnjak for making my ears bleed.
Those quibbles aside, though, Rapson’s achievement is wildly impressive, and is matched, in fact, by the hard-working ensemble (Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch, Ben Roseberry). I was gob-smacked during curtain call to realize that it was only six actors playing all those well-observed cameo roles as well as producing that impressive, rich, ptich-perfect sound.
Regarding the supporting leads, Mary VanArsdel gets things off to a promising start. She plays the servant whose revelation triggers the plot, and she nails her duet with Massey.
The romantic conflict is embodied by Kristen Beth Williams, who gives a colorful performance as Sibella, keeping distinct and pleasing a role that could have become a cliché in less-assured hands, and Adrienne Eller, who has one of those eccentric voices you associate with secondary characters on a sit-com. When I first heard her speak, I thought I was going to find her annoying, but, by the time she joined Massey and Williams in “I’ve Decided o Marry You,” I had decided to be won over by her.
“I’ve Decided to Marry You” is the showcase number that was performed on the Tony broadcast. I saw that, and it didn’t make me want to run out and get a ticket. Seeing it live, though, you realize how nearly impossible — or, at least, how infrequent — it is for video to capture the special energy of a stage performance. It was a highlight of the evening.
There were a couple of times when the score triggered memories not only of Gilbert & Sullivan, but also of Sondheim — some of the duets and trios have a waltz tempo that brought to mind A Little Night Music.
That comparison is not kind to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which, despite its accomplishment and its charm, doesn’t plum any thematic depths, and doesn’t have much emotional resonance. It’s a delightful confection, but just that.
That is why, as impressed as I was, as enjoyable as I found it, I will give it only four stars out of five.
I expect, though, that it is probably clear to you, from the above description, whether or not A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder will be your cup of tea. If you think it will be, rush over to the Kennedy Center. It’s tea-time.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder . Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman . Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak . Directed by Darko TresnjakCast: John Rapson, Kevin Massey, Kristen Beth Williams, Adrienne Eller, Mary VanArsdel, Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch, Ben Roseberry . Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge . Costume Design: Linda Cho . Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg . Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier . Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne . Musical Director: Lawrence Goldberg . Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick . Choreography: Peggy Hickey . National tour presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.