Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder debuted on Broadway in in 2013, and won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical (albeit in a generally weak year for new shows). Based on a 1907 novel, the show takes place in England from 1907 to 1909. Commoner Monty Navarro finds out that his recently deceased mother had been expelled from the wealthy aristocratic D'Ysquith family for marrying his father. In addition, he discovers that he is 9th in line to become the Earl of Highhurst and to inherit the castle and estate of the family. Monty reaches out to the family for assistance, but soon receives the same rejection his mother got. Meanwhile, he stumbles onto the idea of killing off the family members who stand between him and the earlship, mostly as revenge for their mistreatment of his mother. Monty is also in love with the vain but beautiful (and married) Sibella, while also being taken with his newly found cousin Phoebe, which makes for some intriguing juggling of relationships.
The musical's book is by Robert L. Freedman, and it effectively mixes in both subtle and broad comedy, romance, theatricality and intrigue. While murder is an integral part of the plot, the entire story is told lightheartedly. Though crafted in the style of a British farce, Gentleman's Guide doesn't have the over-the-top silliness that can become tedious in some shows of that genre. The storytelling is quick and complex, but communicated rather clearly for the most part. The only major drawback to the book is that there is never really a high level of excitement that is created for the audience. Theatergoers aren't likely to be bored, but they also won't go home to tell a hundred friends about the show either.
The songs are by Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and the aforementioned Robert L. Freedman (lyrics). There is solid craftsmanship in the songwriting, which is in the style of post-Victorian English music hall songs. The lyrics have sufficient wit and humor, and the music is melodic pastiche. Though the score is well suited for the story and show, the songs aren't likely to become popular (even among showtune aficionados) on their own. Among the stronger numbers are "Better with a Man," "Inside Out," and "The Last One You'd Expect."
As Monty, Kevin Massey effectively transforms from lovable loser to opportunistic killer, but maintains empathy from the audience throughout. He provides great vocals, adroit physicality, and detailed acting. The coupe-de-theatre of this show is that one actor portrays all of the D'Ysquith family members (male and female) who stand in Monty's path. John Rapson provides distinct characters and mannerisms for each, garners lots of laughs, and sings well. Some of the costume changes are very quick, and Mr. Rapson (with the help of some talented dressers) maintains the energy level and skill to transform from character to character in a timely manner.
As Sibella, Kristen Beth Williams exudes the sensuality and vanity of the woman who loves Monty but won't marry him due to his low station in life. Kristen Hahn provides Phoebe D'Ysquith with the requisite endearing warmth and forthright conviction of one of the only likeable members of the family. Both women are wonderful singers, and combine with Mr. Massey in performing a great scene with the song "I've Decided To Marry You." The seven ensemble members skillfully play a variety of roles throughout the proceedings.
Director Darko Tresnjak provides witty and effective blocking, marvelous staging concepts (including some appealing tableau visuals), and a tone that is in perfect alignment with the material. There is plenty of theatrical flair present as well, and the pace of the show, except for one scene in act two, is quick. Peggy Hickey's choreography can't really be categorized as dance, but the timed movement is in line with the material and visually interesting. Music director Lawrence Goldberg leads a talented orchestra composed of a mix of touring and local musicians.
The scenic design for Gentleman's Guide by Alexander Dodge is an intriguing one. On the stage are two desks and chairs, one of each on each side. In the middle is a smaller raised stage (with proscenium, curtain and footlights) in the style of an English music hall. The action takes place both on the inner stage and in front of it, with different set pieces being changed behind the inner curtain. Vivid and fun projections by Aaron Rhyne are also used (but not overused) to provide added details for the stage within the stage. The costumes by Linda Cho are colorful, attractive, and period appropriate, and the lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg is professionally rendered.
You may not be familiar with the title, songs, or story of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, but that shouldn't stop you from choosing to see the show. While the musical will never be a megahit like Wicked, Hamilton, or The Book of Mormon, it's a crowd pleaser and a solidly created and performed musical that is worth seeing.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 8, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit www.agentlemansguidebroadway.com.