Home » Production Review » A Gentleman’s Guide to Comedic Homicides; or, The Great Musical Paradox of Our Generation

A Gentleman’s Guide to Comedic Homicides; or, The Great Musical Paradox of Our Generation

Posted by on Saturday, February 25, 2017 in Production Review, , , , , , .

It was a dark and chilly night in January. There was no rain, but the wind rustled my skirts as I stalked along the streets of downtown Nashville. A tall building loomed; a flashing red marquee and the impression of darkened, reflective windows—The Tennessee Performing Arts Center. We had arrived. I stepped inside, removed my gloves, and grinned at the red velvet-draped photo booth labeled with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The touring Broadway show I was about to see with my class had been the recipient of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2014. This musical comedy revolves around a paradoxical effect; getting the audience to appreciate and even cheer for murder. And there’s no catch. The show’s final impression is warm and full, the kind of thing you recall with a big stupid smile on your face.  This paradox captivates the audience, leaving no room to wish for deeper themes. Surprisingly, the show trivializes a serious topic and gets away with it, despite a contemporary context which rarely accepts such light treatment of serious topics.

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Of course, prior to the start of the show, I knew none of this. All I knew was that as soon as we found our seats, my excitement was significantly dampened by a major realization: we were sitting painfully far away from the stage. For someone from a small high school theatre program, who also works in an intimate black box theatre in college, the distance between actors and audience added an unscratchable itch to my entire experience of the performance.

But I had little time to grumble about the distance from the proscenium-within-a-proscenium (design by Alexander Dodge) as the show began, the ensemble talking to the audience from a mausoleum with “Overture/A Warning to the Audience.” The synchronized head movements of the chorus of caricatures and a silly, overwrought trumpeter’s ditty prepares spectators for the show. To top it off, the actors deliver darkly intriguing London accents, a la Sweeney Todd, placing viewers in the high-class setting.

After this creep-tastic introduction, spectators are whisked away to prison, where present-day Monty Navarro (understudy Matt Leisy) writes the account of his recent past. Seconds later, the show arrives in Monty’s home, just after his mother’s death. An estranged distant relative Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) announces Monty’s inheritance as ninth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst (“You’re a D’Ysquith”). During this number, Freedman and Lutvak’s clever lyrics shone (You’re a D-Apostrophe-Y Squith), but neither Leisy nor VanArsdell’s performances captured attention. Boredom grew through to the establishment of the first love interest, self-interested Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams).

As the exposition continued without much verve, spectators were free to concentrate on clever touches, like the name’s implication of death (D’Ysquith= dies quick). The extensive adaptability of the proscenium set drew attention as the faces of the chorus appeared in picture frames and the suits of armor on the wall marched in place during “I Don’t Understand the Poor.” However, irritation or confusion at the content of such a song (my activist brain resisted being roped into the joke) can prevent full engagement. Here, the plot of Act 1 stutters, flatlining. But never fear— Monty soon provides a tipping point; a moment where a semi-mundane series of expositional events flip over into a wildly enjoyable participatory escapade.

That moment? The first murder. Monty has decided to begin murdering those ahead of him in line for the Earl of Highhurst, and his first victim is a very old priest, whose incrementally fast steps invoke uproarious laughter from the audience. This is the first of many D’Ysquith characters played by one man and one man alone: the undeniably talented John Rapson. The nonsense of this character, layered with the circular stomping up the tower of Monty and the Reverend, followed by Monty’s sung monologue of the decision to kill him, begin a hilarious journey through the rest of the show. The audience supports Monty all the way, forgetting to question his morality.

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From then on, A Gentleman’s Guide explodes predictability, and the music of the show pins our hearts in the right place. The classy British accents and operatic singing reflect the wealth and class of the position Monty attempts to ascend to, setting the atmosphere, but providing a more contemporary feel. More importantly, Leisy’s scheming vocal performance is somehow innocent; light-hearted, turning despicable actions into likable character traits. Sibella and Phoebe (Kristen Hahn), country mouse and third point of the love triangle, bring the sweeping feminine contrast to murder with their sopranos. And the exaggerated, extremely bouncy nature of Rapson’s roles forbid the audience from fully connecting to his characters, never allowing us to be sad at their deaths. The effect? By the time we reach the climax of the show, giggles abound, and spectators are still treated to increasing absurdities.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a worthy musical not because of its deep and profound meaning, nor its unique and prestigious place in the history of musical theatre. Rather, the show finds its worth in a connection to the audience, one that subsists on a paradox of both comedy and a form of tragedy, laughter and felony, love and murder.

 

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