Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a romp of passionate kisses and devilish schemes that thoroughly entertains. It’s a musical theatre treat making audiences chuckle with glee as each gag unfolds delightfully before the their eyes. Best of all, the touring company hosted by Broadway in Chicago puts forward a show every bit the equal to New York’s production that won the 2014 Tony for Best Musical.
Coming direct from New York, Broadway In Chicago explains that Gentleman’s Guide tells the uproarious story of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a distant heir to a family fortune who sets out to jump the line of succession by–you guessed it–eliminating the eight pesky relatives (all played by John Rapson) who stand in his way. All the while, Monty has to juggle his mistress (Kristen Beth Willams reveals she’s after more than just love), his fiancée (Adrienne Eller plays his cousin, but who’s keeping track?), and the constant threat of landing behind bars! Of course, it will all be worth it if he can slay his way to his inheritance…and be done in time for tea. Further plot and production history details may be read here.
This production excels in numerous ways—the music (both vocal and orchestral), performers, costumes, choreography and more all combine wonderfully in this tour. Some of the most delightfully fun aspects of the show are the moments of impeccable timing. The cast has trained to highlight each gag with slow, prolonged glances, quick-paced banter, deliberate gestures and use of props. All these clearly reflect Director Darko Tresnjak’s commitment to elicit laughter in every way possible. Even the timing of a well-placed entrance induces laughter, like the visually surprising white-gloved hand that delivers mail to Monty. The visual gags in this show are laugh-out-loud funny, especially if one pays close enough attention to catch them all throughout the show. Synchronicity is the name of the game that Tresnjak has the actors playing throughout—and it is hilarious. Moreover, the visual gags run the gamut of actor created–sexual innuendos galore—to the over-the-top visual storytelling accomplished through the projections by Creator Aaron Rhyne and Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenburg.
The costumes in this production help create each character and scene. In some scenes, the dresses Sibella wears take on a life of their own. This is as much a credit to Costume Designer Linda Cho as to the actress who skillfully whisks the fabrics and forms of each dress across the stage. The color choices pop off the stage—even the all-black dresses of the mourners in the chorus scenes have shape and life in them. Additionally, the women’s hats in the show rival those of Eliza Doolittle and friends in the famous ascot scene; their shapes, plumage, dressings, and colors are all worn in grandeur throughout the show. Lastly, it is important to note the extreme importance Cho plays in helping the lead male assume so many varied characters throughout the show. In fact, if it weren’t for the amazing costume transformations from one character to another, there were times when the audience would have had trouble recognizing the differences in the characters. While Rapson brings energy to the roles, one can’t help but feel that there are more choices he could have made to really distinguish the D’Ysquith family members from one another. The costumes, however, succeed in doing so on every level. All in all, Cho treats the audience with an entertaining visual pallet to match the energy of the rest of the production.
Actress Williams delivers a winning performance, exciting the audience with her vocal and physical prowess on stage. Her beautiful soprano resounds in the Bank of America Theatre, bringing a warmth and fullness to the vocals that help distinguish her from the very talented, but typically bright sounding soprano of the other cast members. Moreover, she delivers such quick, funny glances, gestures and tableaus that one is drawn to watch her whenever on the stage. Patrons believably grasp why Monty Navarro has fallen under her spell, for her performance seduces the audience right along with him.
Massey is the other true standout performer in this production. He relishes in the funny asides, quips, winks, and monologues that establish a sense of trust and playfulness with the audience. This relationship is key to the success of the show, as Monty is the driving force behind the show’s plot. Not only does his winsome demeanor draw the audience in, but he also portrays just enough devilishness necessary for the murderous turns his character takes. Massey keeps it all lighthearted and fun throughout—and splendidly keeps up the stamina of a character who hardly leaves the stage. And what a voice! Massey has a robust tenor, singing this difficult role with a smooth, rich quality. The Act 2 signature number, “I’ve Decided to Marry You” is a tour-de-force trio between Massey, Williams and Adrienne Eller’s Pheobe D’Dysquith. It’s musical theatre genius, and these three deliver. Their performance is impressively nuanced for such a quick-paced number, showing that these actors and their director are cleverly witted as well. At the end of this number on opening night, the audience’s applause lasted at least three times longer than any of the others, since all in attendance surely recognized the marvelous performance they just witnessed.
Rapson brings a youthful energy to the eight ever-changing roles of the D’Ysquith clan; this works especially well for some of the more vibrant characters. While he sings the roles nicely, the variety in all the characters would be better fit in an actor who really plays with the nuance of each of the characters evenly—rather than having an unbalanced performance where some characters were great and others fell flat. Not to undermine a strong performance, this role has challenges most actors never have to face, and Rapson is able to deliver the humor of it all amidst the strong performances of his colleagues. Of particular note are his portrayals of the foppish Henry D’Ysquith, the bee-keeper and the unsightly D’Ysquith priest. But Rapson is not the only one who changes characters in this show: the rest of the ensemble in this show morph into a number of characters in fantastic fashion. Since the entire ensemble is made up of only 11 people, the other actors do a fine job of bringing new life to each scene.
Gentleman’s Guide is a touring production not to miss. With a luscious and clever scenic design by Alexander Dodge, led by a fearless tech crew. This professional production succeeds in all endeavors. As a new piece of work, writers Freedman (Book & Lyrics) and Lutvak (music & lyrics) bring a fresh, modern approach to music that is reminiscent of musicals of the past. While the plot line is simply watching one murder after another as Monty rises to his position, the gags and laughs are full throughout.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” runs at the Bank of America Theatre through October 11th. Tickets range from $25-$123 and are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations and online here.