With a wealthy aristocratic family that refuses to acknowledge him, and a money-hungry girlfriend who refuses to marry him, what’s an impoverished young man to do? The unfortunate relatives of Monty Navarro quickly find out, in the darkly hilarious musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
Based on the same source material as the classic British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, the show sees Monty (Kevin Massey) recklessly murdering his way to the family fortune and title, while simultaneously dallying with the devious Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and wooing his upright cousin Phoebe (Adrienne Eller).
Directed by Darko Tresnjak, the show starts slowly but is soon galloping merrily from murder to murder, enlivened by the vaudeville-flavored tunes of Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak. The team is equally adept at writing for dramatic moments (like Monty’s plaintive “Foolish to Think” and haunting “Sibella”) and moments of farce (especially the brilliant trio “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” in which Monty desperately tries to keep apart the two ladies in his life). The book suffers somewhat from bloat in the second act, as a pivotal dinner party scene runs too long and has too much happening in it, and the ending seems more like six endings, a la The Lord of the Rings. But for the most part, the story is fun and engaging.
John Rapson delivers a tour de force in playing eight members of the doomed D’Ysquith family, of all ages, genders, and personalities, making lightning-fast costume changes and pulling off each character with flair, and even breaking the fourth wall now and then to flirt charmingly with the audience. Yet A Gentleman’s Guide is ultimately an ensemble piece, dependent on the interactions between all four leads. As seasoned pros, the cast members trade off lines of fast-paced patter songs, provide copious sight gags and running jokes, and make themselves heard over frequent audience laughter, all at once.
Kevin Massey’s innocent, almost frail, appearance serves him in good stead as Monty, making him seem (as one of the songs says) “The Last One You’d Expect” to become a serial killer. When needed, he infuses enough genuine anger and pain into his songs to make Monty’s deadly purpose believable, but he’s also a master at comic facial expressions that convulse the audience. Adrienne Eller is delightful as the sweet Phoebe, successfully handling the often tricky task of making the “good girl” appealing. Kristen Beth Williams is competent as Sibella, though I would like to see her do more to liven up the first part of the show, before the killing gets underway.
Alexander Dodge’s set is full of clever touches, like paintings, statues, and suits of armor that get into the action at key moments, and Aaron Rhyne’s creative projections lend a dose of verisimilitude to Monty’s murders that simultaneously elicits chuckles and shivers. A murder on an outdoor skating rink is particularly well staged, with Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., and his paramour spinning gracefully around the “ice,” between strategically placed set pieces, before falling through a hole provided by Monty.
Costumes and wigs (by Linda Cho and Charles G. LaPointe, respectively) play a vital role in helping John Rapson switch smoothly between characterizations, sometimes within mere seconds, and they serve their purpose well. Gorgeously bright colors dominate both sets and costumes, though Cho also does a nice job with black mourning outfits (which of course turn up fairly regularly), giving them a slightly steampunk air.
In short, A Gentleman’s Guide hits just the right tone for those who take their comedy black. This marvelously murderous evening is worth your while.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder plays through January 30, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.