After more than 900 performances on Broadway and multiple Tony, Drama Desk and Critics Circle awards, including Best Musical, the national tour of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, now in its Los Angles stop at the Ahmanson Theatre, validates those awards in spades. A packed opening night house roared with laughter and applause at the delicious antics of ripe Edwardian-age characters from across the spectrum of class. Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, the musical tells the story of a young Londoner, Monty Navarro (splendid Kevin Massey). He is first seen in a prison cell on the night before his execution for murder as he writes his memoirs detailing the progress of his crimes. In flashback scenes, he reveals how he came to his predicament. He had an impoverished childhood in which he was raised by his mother, a woman left widowed after his father, a Castilian, died. A mysterious woman, Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel), visits the young man and informs him in the delicious number, “You’re a D’Ysquith,” that his mother was a disinherited member of a wealthy aristocratic family. She informs him that he stands ninth in line of succession to a title and a fabulous fortune if only he can get the family to acknowledge him. How he goes about ingratiating himself and eliminating those who stand in his way is the light-hearted, black comedy entertainment of the evening.
In a bravura performance, John Rapson takes on the roles of nine wonderfully disgusting D’Ysquiths, men and women destined for doom. With vocal prowess, physical agility and flawless comic timing, Mr. Rapson inhabits these loathsome aristocrats in all their silliness as they meet their maker in the most theatrical of ways.
Monty’s love interest, Sibella Hallward (gorgeous Kristen Beth Williams), cares for him, but has her eye on a dull, handsome man of higher social status. As expertly played by Ms. Williams, Sibella is a smoldering tease, genuinely fond of Monty, but disdainful of his poverty. As he works his deadly way up the family tree, Monty falls for a distant D’Ysquith cousin, Phoebe (petite, exquisite Adrienne Eller). The juggling of the two love interests leads to a crowning moment when Monty keeps the two at bay in separate rooms, a door slamming, farcical scene that was the hit of the 2014 Tony Awards broadcast. The ensemble (Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch and Ben Roseberry) displays impressive vocal power and dancing precision.
The physical production as a whole is a wonder to behold. The scenic design by Alexander Dodge, with lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, consists of a false proscenium and small stage with footlights and red velvet curtains. The small stage extends itself to accommodate grander scenes and the witty use of projections (by Aaron Rhyne) make death hilarious, as when the dotty Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith falls to death or when Henry D’Ysquith, a country squire, is swarmed by bees. The costume design by Linda Cho is colorful and period perfect. The sound design by Dan Moses Schreier makes the eleven-piece orchestra sound like twenty-two and the actors sound natural. Special mention must be made to the unseen backstage crew who make everything happen with fluid expertise, especially the dressers who effect the quick changes.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a Broadway show at its very best. With book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, the show is witty and droll, energized by players at the very top of their game. The madcap action is superbly directed by Darko Tresnjak, with tight choreography by Peggy Hickey.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a four star wonder. It runs through May 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre. See it before it leaves town.