Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the perfect cocktail of a comedic story of social climbing and romance, clever sets, impeccable costumes, and singing that soars. Oh yes, and murder. I know it is hard to imagine how to make that comical, but this is a light-hearted musical intended to be amusing and a bit campy and melodramatic, so trust me, it’s all in good fun—which is no wonder it won four Tony Awards, including “Best Musical” in 2014.
Set in London, the story opens with the hero/anti-hero Monty Navarro, played by Kevin Massey, reading from his journal, giving us a glimpse of his forays into murder. Then the story leads flashbacks to a point in his life where he is informed that he is of nobler birth than he imagined. Miss Shingle, played by Mary VanArsdel, reveals that Navarro’s mother, who married “a Castilian,” was from the wealthy and aristocratic D’Ysquith family. Because she wed beneath her social station (what they called “for love”) the family disowned her, and subsequently, led her and Navarro to live a modest life. Once he realizes that he is only eight heirs away from becoming the Earl of D’Ysquith himself, Navarro finds a way to bump off the competition, and hilarity ensues.
To add to the mix, Navarro is involved with the upper-crusty Sibella Hallward, who eventually marries someone way above Navarro’s station, all the while continuing her affair with the social-climbing Navarro. Let me say right now that these two have incredible chemistry on stage, and Kristen Beth Williams as Hallward is perfectly perfect as his gorgeous love interest. Not only is she beautiful, but her Edwardian costumes are as chic and cheeky as she is, and her singing is beyond reproach. She and Massey have perfect timing in their numbers together, and she is so graceful in her movements and dancing that I didn’t want her scenes to end.
Equally charming (even when plotting murder) is Massey himself, the main character who tirelessly appears in almost every scene. His vocals are also impressive, and he and Williams set the bar high for the entire cast. Luckily, for the audience, the choreography and songs are clever and entertaining, and this production is a well-oiled machine that delivers. Massey is the center—but Williams, and his other love interest Phoebe D’Ysquith (so well played by Adrienne Heller), form a formidable triumvirate of performers that never failed to impress. One of the highlights of the show was a scene in which Massey had Williams on one side of a door, and Heller on the other, and the trio singing, as he is pulled toward both women in different directions, is combined with clever choreography. No one upstages anyone here during this performance of “I’ve Decided to Marry You”; they are all three superlative performers.
Just when I thought it could not get better, I realized that all of the D’Ysquith heirs that Navarro is bent on eliminating (including women) were played by one actor: John Rapson. I was amazed at his transformations into D’Ysquiths both young and old, male and female, urbane and ridiculous. His portrayal of a do-gooding relative that travels the world was campy and comic, and is a great example of physical entertainment and brilliant costuming done right. It is worth the price of admission just to see him perform so many disparate roles, all with aplomb and high energy.
Maybe there are holes in this outlandish plot, but I wasn’t really looking for them because who really cares? This is all about singing, costumes and comedy, and the only time my mind wandered was during a few of the rather long ensemble songs, but they were still well done and interesting. Did I mention that everyone, including the ensemble, has perfectly executed English accents while both speaking and singing? That’s another major plus.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder makes the Edwardian Age seem sexy and fun, and the sets, ranging from a winter ice skating scene to various boudoirs to a police station are well constructed and not only work with the music, but also with the intricate choreography that accompanies many of the songs. Rapson as multiple characters is a marvel all by himself—but add the charm of Massey, Williams and Heller—and I promise that even if you are resistant to this kind of musical theater, you will find the entire enterprise of this excellent national touring company hard to resist.
Through May 15. $37.75 - $124.50. TUTS at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. tuts.com