If the plot of a struggling young man in Edwardian England who discovers he’s ninth in line to earn a title sounds familiar, it should; especially when that young man murders the eight other heirs standing before him. It’s from the 1949 Alec Guinness and Dennis Price black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets.
When author and lyricist Robert L. Freedman wrote the musical, it was a relatively faithful adaptation of the classic film. But before Kind Hearts there was a novel. That came in 1907 and was called Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, but the show is really a re-telling of the film. However, due to a legal dispute, for whatever reason, the movie’s title could not be used.
Considering the show’s style of presentation – it’s a show within a show presented in the style of a London theatre Music Hall with its own decorated proscenium arch – the new title is far more apt. You’ll notice in the playbill credits, the film is never mentioned. Instead, it states that the show is based on a novel by Roy Horniman. The intrigue behind the making of the musical sounds almost as interesting as the show itself.
In A Gentleman’s Guide, Israel Rank becomes Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), and just like Dennis Price’s character in the film, when the show begins, Monty is already in jail. In a recorded voice-over narration, we learn that it’s now the eve of Monty’s execution. He decides to admit to all and begins his story, which he titles A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. After the ensemble sing a warning to the audience that what we are about to see is not for the faint of heart, “So if you’re smart/Before we start/You’d best depart,” the plush, red curtains of the London Music Hall stage rise, and we’re off.
It was Alec Guinness’ idea that all the upper-crust family members standing in Monty’s way should be played by him. Originally he was meant to portray just four of the relatives, but Guinness asked, why not play all eight, including the women? In the show, the same technique is used.
In this national touring production of the hit Broadway musical, the eight family members, both men and women of the D’Ysquith family, are all played with great success by John Rapson. Each character is so well defined, there’s a good chance that some audience members may not even realize it’s Rapson in every role. His performance of I Don’t Understand the Poor, sung under the guise of Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, is one of the show’s two musical highlights. With his imagined sense of superiority and his snotty attitude of those in a class below him – he even points to audience members in ASU Gammage’s upper balcony seats – there’s a point where Monty’s murders become less of a crime and more of a public service. You actually spur him on.
The other musical highlight comes in the second half. It’s not only a great scene, as time passes, it may well take on the guise of one of the standout musical moments of modern musical theatre. Massey’s Monty has climbed the social ladder and finds himself caught between the affections of two women, the worldly and somewhat conniving socialite Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and the more innocent though thoroughly charming Phoebe (Adrrienne Eller). Both women arrive at Monty’s home at the same time, with Monty guiding the women into separate rooms as he attempts to entertain them both while keeping them apart. The music by Steven Lutvak coupled with Freedman’s wonderfully witty lyrics echo Gilbert & Sullivan with even a dash of Sondheim. The song is I’ve Decided to Marry You and it’s what a farce like A Flea in Her Ear or even Noises Off might look and sound like if they were presented as musicals, complete with slamming doors, identity changes – Monty pretends Sibella is really his imagined noisy manservant Wordsworth – and frantic exits and entrances into different rooms.
The murders Monty commits are comically staged, aided with the never-ending visual invention of Aaron Rhyne’s back screen projection that help illustrate the cause of each character’s demise. The vicar appears to fall down a spiraling staircase inside his church tower; another disappears under cracked ice, while another is hilariously pursued by killer bees. The technology used, including the recorded voice-over narration, is a reminder that what could have passed for a musical from the forties or fifties is really a product of today. And that’s no bad thing. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design on the music hall stage within a stage is forever attention-grabbing with its quick set changes and its dazzling color, brought to life by Philip S. Rosenberg’s glittering lighting. Even before the murders commence, the effectiveness of Rhyne’s animated projection is immediately noticeable when the rooftops of London, as seen through the windows of Monty’s threadbare Clapham flat, omit dirty, spiraling black smoke from the chimneys.
The plot driven show is crammed with incident that makes this two hour, twenty minute production fly by, though the book isn’t perfect. It lets itself down somewhat in the second half during the dinner table scene where Lord Adalbert and his wife squabble, snarl, then scream at each other. It’s a blunder that unfortunately lasts too long; its over-the-top delivery may potentially cause an audience lack of interest until the scene is over. But things pick up once the over-long stretch is passed and plot returns.
The conclusion of the show differs from the 1949 film, though to tell you how would be a bigger crime than any of Monty’s murders. Interestingly, when the film was readied for American audiences, censors would not allow the British version to play – there was no way a murderer could get away with his crimes – so an extra few seconds were added to remind audiences that Monty (named Louis in the film) had left his confessional memoir in his jail cell for others to find after being freed. The show includes yet another layer which only adds to the surprises of the musical and strengthens the outcome even further.
The show won’t change anyone’s view when it comes to the advancement of musical comedy, but it’s a great evening’s entertainment of good humor, inventive staging, grand voices and clever songs. If recent modern fare such as Rent or Green Day’s American Idiot leaves you wondering whatever happened to uncomplicated storytelling and the American musical, then this show is yours. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is that rarity – a new musical with a score inspired from a theatrical style of the past that will forever remain timeless. And it’s so much fun.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official ASU Gammage website.