by Gilbert Seah
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is a musical comedy, with the book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. The musical is enjoying both rave reviews and a successful run at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre riding on its grand win of four Tony Awards in June 2014 including Best Musical.
The musical is based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, with some changes like the names its characters. It should be noted that the book was also made into an Ealing Studios film – the famous KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS starring Alec Guinness. While the film stood out as a black comedy, the musical version opts for outlandish comedy.
The story concerns a penniless young man named Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) who discovers that he is 9th in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. The aristocrat D’Ysquiths (the name selected because its first syllable is ‘die’; another name was used in the film) disinherited Monty’s mother and denies his existence. Monty decides to knock off the eight so that he can become Earl. In the meantime, his girlfriend Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) ditches him while he fall for Phoebe (Adrienne Eller).
The story has potential for bedroom farce, Sondheim type musical numbers and murder, a favourite theatre staple.
Kevin Massey has an excellent voice which is likely the reason he was chosen to play the main lead. He also makes a good straight man for all the comedy going around him. But it is John Rapson who steals the show, playing all the eight D’Ysquith family members as Alec Guinness did in the film. Both actors Massey and Rapson got a standing ovation during the performance I attended. But my prize for performance goes to Mary VanArsdel, playing Miss Shingle who shines in both comedy and song.
The best segment of the musical is its take on British bedroom farce with Monty hiding his two women in different rooms while being proposed by one . (See photo inset.) The shutting and opening of doors are perfect in timing with antics well choreographed while the song “I’ve Decide to Marry You” is performed.
The musical’s outlandishness is highlighted by Linda Cho’s costume design which won her a Tony. Her overdone pink costumes for Sibella and for the other females in the story are unforgettable. The scenic (Alexander Dodge) and projection design (Aaron Rhyne) also deserve mention. The moving trees in the skating sequence and the chasing bees demand mention.
Despite warnings in song at the start (“A Warning to the Audience) and middle (“Final Warning”), A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is a harmless entertaining evening at the theatre that should delight everyone without offending any. The only times the musical almost offends are the segments with Lady Hyacinth abroad in Africa, India and Egypt. But those are forgivable as they are done for the purpose of harmless enjoyment.