Theater Review: A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder at the Straz

It's a tour de farce — and it'd be a crime to miss it.

click to enlarge Monty (Kevin Massey) and his two opposing amours (Kristen Beth Williams and Adrienne Eller). - Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
Monty (Kevin Massey) and his two opposing amours (Kristen Beth Williams and Adrienne Eller).

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder.
4 stars
Runs through Oct. 25. Thurs at 7:30 p.m.; Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7:30 p.m.
Straz Center, 813-229-STAR,

A perfect little jewel box of a musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is as elegantly put together as its protagonist's plot to bump off the eight relatives standing between him and a vast fortune. Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's 2014 Tony winner evokes a number of theatrical ancestors (think Gilbert & Sullivan crossed with Sondheim and a dash of Oscar Wilde) but it's something all to itself — a sui generis delight.

Inspired by the 1949 British film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, the action in Guide unfolds in high style within an artificial proscenium, suggesting a vaudeville or British panto stage. Each new, exquisitely detailed setting is revealed behind red stage draperies and augmented by clever use of projections — like a vertiginous-looking church spire that figures in the death of a tipsy cleric.

John Rapson plays that cleric — as well as all of the other doomed D'Ysquiths — with rambunctious verve and virtuosic comic invention. Each of his characterizations is at once hilarious and distinct, from pompous earl to tittering country squire, from monstrous grande dame to musclebound he-man.

click to enlarge John Rapson as Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith. - Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
John Rapson as Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith.
Rapson is matched by Kevin Massey as Monty D'Ysquith Navarro, the impoverished heir (disinherited because his mother dared to marry — horrors — a Castilian!). So what if he's a murderer? His victims (with one exception) are so despicable, and Massey is so charming, that the audience has no trouble rooting for him, or believing that he could win the hearts of two beautiful ladies — the social-climbing Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and Monty's virginal cousin Phoebe (Adrienne Eller).

Williams and Eller not only have sterling musical chops, they're also very funny — qualities showcased in what is possibly the most famous number in Guide, “I've Decided to Marry You.” (It's the number that was performed by the Broadway cast at the Tonys, when Guide deservedly won Best Musical.) In this tour de force — or maybe the correct term would be tour de farce — Monty tries to keep Phoebe (who's in the library, proposing marriage) from catching sight of Sibella (who's in the bedroom, trying to figure out who's in the library), as all three sing contrapuntally and Monty pretzels himself between opposing doorways. 

click to enlarge Rapson as Lord Adalbert. - Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
Rapson as Lord Adalbert.
The supporting cast in Guide is just as impressive as the principals, with standout performances by Angela Lansbury-esque Mary VanArsdel as a crafty servant and Kristen Mengelkoch, outrageously over the top as the wife of Lord Adalbert, the most objectionable of the D'Ysquiths. Their volcanic marital squabbles literally stop the show. (So, by the way, does Adalbert's "I Don't Understand the Poor," a scathing send-up of the privileged class.)

In addition to Best Musical, Guide snagged Tonys for Linda Cho's costumes, which are remarkable (and, one would imagine, remarkably easy to take on and off, in the case of those multiple D'Ysquith costumes); Robert Freedman's mordantly witty book; and the inspired direction of Darko Tresnjak. The lilting score by Steven Lutvak and the eye-popping scenic and lighting design by Alexander Dodge and Philip S. Rosenberg also deserve note, as do the projection designs of Aaron Rhyne.

It'd be a crime to miss any of it.

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