Home » Blog posts » “Stop! Wait! What?!:” The Unconventional Entertainment of A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

“Stop! Wait! What?!:” The Unconventional Entertainment of A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

Posted by on Friday, February 24, 2017 in Blog posts, Production Review.

gentleman's guide

If your preferences tend more toward romance than slaughter, you may want to avoid A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a musical which gives the two equal billing in title only. Likewise, if your theatrical tastes tend toward tidy plot resolution and flashy production numbers, this isn’t your show. Freedman and Lutvak’s Gentleman’s Guide stopped in Nashville at the end of January as part of the “Broadway at TPAC” series. Rather than taking a conventional bent by emphasizing the romantic plot or by supersizing the production elements and ensemble, the production creates large-scale hilarity and spectacle through pared back, imaginative storytelling and design.

Gentleman’s Guide chronicles the rags to riches journey of Monty Navarro, whose rejection by the woman he loves and the family that disowned his mother leads him to begin systematically killing the eight people who stand between him and inheriting the earldom of Highhurst. Perhaps the most surprising subversion is the show’s exploration of love. Based on the title alone, love could be the primary focus of the show, with murder more of an afterthought. This show, however, allows love to take a backseat to the comedically heightened murders of the D’Ysquith heirs. Despite love’s importance as a motivator for Monty and the stage time given to the show’s two main women, Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and Phoebe (Kristen Hahn), the love story never feels fully resolved. The similarities of the women’s costumes and voices result in their feeling one-dimensional and interchangeable, and while both Williams and Hahn commit fully to their roles, this facet of the story is forgettable compared to the theatrical comedy of Monty’s murderous endeavors.

Told as an extended flashback with narration from Monty’s memoirs, the production uses a false stage and proscenium backdropped by a projection screen to cleverly separate the show’s action from Monty’s inner narrative and ruminations. The murders and other major plot points occur on the smaller stage, with Monty’s introspection occurring mostly in front of it. The creation of a stage within a stage heightens the theatricality of the various murders and creates a sense of intimacy throughout the performance, even in a space as large and impersonal as TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall. Despite having only eleven actors and a self-contained set, the production fills the space with opulence and exaggeration. Freedman and Lutvak’s music, which invokes operettas such as those by Gilbert and Sullivan, is lush against the backdrop of a classic red velvet curtain. This musical style reinforces the characters’ cosmopolitan nature while feeling consistent with the Victorian era. The costumes evoke the period and reinforce the luxury of the high society life Monty seeks. The use of projections, which could easily seem anachronistic or become overused, effectively supports the narrative rather than distracting from it. Used only during murder scenes, the projections comedically illustrate the D’Ysquith’s causes of death. This allows for more murder options than the expected theatrical death by gun or poison. Overall, these elements contribute to the whimsical nature of the show and its playful subversion of audience expectations.

While Monty Navarro (played by understudy Matt Leisy on the night I attended) is certainly the show’s central character, the most spectacular performance is that of John Rapson in the roles of Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, and Chauncey. Yes, he plays all of those roles, and no, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which I forgot that Rapson plays nine different roles. Each character felt fully formed and distinct from the other eight, and their radical differences in appearance (through costume, hair, and makeup design), voice, and demeanor were enough to convince me of their status as nine separate entities rather than a single person jumping between roles. The show’s overt theatricality aids this suspension of disbelief by allowing audience members to recognize its absurdities without detracting from their investment in the show as it occurs.

Gentleman’s Guide’s insistence on giving you everything but what you expect is exactly why it succeeds. Despite its lack of flashy colors, jazz hands, and straightforward romantic plot, the show manages to provide hilarity and, at least for me, a distraction from the outside world. Such a distraction seems like the purpose of the aforementioned flashy musical, but Gentleman’s Guide proves that there is not just one way to create a musical comedy, managing to do so while focusing on an adulterous serial killer. Even if it does not fulfill all—or even most—of your expectations, Gentleman’s Guide delivers on entertainment alone.

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