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Great Fun at Gentleman’s Guide

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

          In 2014, I fell head over heels for musical theatre. Soon, I was constantly humming show tunes, and the phrase “I’d kill for tickets” entered my regular lexicon. That June, I attended my first ever Tony Awards watch party — and was the only one to correctly call the winner for Best Musical. As I watched the cast and creative team of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder collect their statuette, I felt like I’d joined an elite upper crust of theatre nerds, and I’ve wanted to see the show ever since. Two and half years later, I finally got my chance as the Gentleman’s Guide tour production made a stop in Nashville as part of the “Broadway at TPAC” series.

         This “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Sweeney Todd” musical tells the tale of Monty Navarro, a young British chap who’s hovering on the edge of destitution when he learns he’s a member of the posh D’Ysquith line. Unfortunately, the elite family has locked him out of their lives because his mother married below her station. Monty tries to talk his way into the family fortune, but when he’s coldly rejected, he takes a more direct route… and begins killing the relatives who stand between him and the earldom. Monty plots, executes, and covers up the murders of Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, and Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey in quick succession. He’s also juggling two romantic prospects, society belle Sibella Hallward and distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith. His whirlwind climb up the social ladder gets a little more complicated when he’s put on trial for the murder of Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, one of the only crimes he didn’t commit. But with his characteristic wit and charm — and a little help from his doting lovers — he worms his way out of the sticky situation without any serious damage to his health, wealth, or reputation, and goes on to claim the title Earl of Highhurst. The story is light-hearted, irreverent, and completely hilarious.

          By the time Monty offed his first ill-fated relative, it was abundantly clear why Gentleman’s Guide took home the gold in 2014. The tour production, recreated by original Broadway director Darko Tresnjak, has no chinks in its armor. Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s book, music, and lyrics hummed with excitement from the get go, the clever turns of phrase bolstered by buoyant, crisp melodies and lively orchestrations. Aaron Rhyne’s playful scenic projections created a dynamic backdrop for the highly theatrical acting and complemented Alexander Dodge’s inventive set, which featured a “stage within a stage” complete with ladders, trapdoors, and footlights. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lights and Linda Cho’s costumes used saturated color and sumptuous textures to evoke a larger-than-life Edwardian England. The design elements worked in tandem to create a sense of whimsy that helped the audience to giggle and guffaw past the brutal consequences of the onstage action. Each bloody deed was so precise and picturesque that the toy proscenium seemed more like a doll house than a crime scene. Kevin Massey’s sweet tenor and devil-may-care demeanor made the murderous Monty lovable. John Rapson turned in a masterful set of performances, portraying all eight D’Ysquith victims with steadily increasing hilarity. Kristen Beth Williams and Kristen Hahn played a disarming Sibella and a devoted Phoebe, respectively, their sparkling sopranos almost as perfectly matched as their first names. A strong ensemble filled out the world as mourners, newsboys, paintings, actors, servants, and various pawns of the judicial system over the course of the musical.

          From the orchestra’s first chord to the hysterical final murder at curtain, Gentleman’s Guide was a feast for the eyes, ears, and funny bone. But despite all its delights, I never really felt connected to the world onstage. The conceit of using one actor to portray all the murdered D’Ysquiths, the smoothly gliding stage, the happy conclusion with all the loose ends tied in a bow — all were delightful to watch, but maximized on their comedic value by minimizing the human costs of the action. I laughed at the characters, but never developed much empathy for them. The show seemed almost like a D’Ysquith family heirloom one might encounter on a tour of Highhurst Castle, sealed behind a pane of glass with a neatly lettered sign reading “Please look but do not touch.” On the whole, Gentleman’s Guide provides a polished evening of excellent entertainment. But if you’re looking for a show that draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings, you may need to look a little farther.

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