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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Murder, They Wrote

AS A DIZZYING SET OF INTRIGUES continues to build through act two, we’re taken to the apartment of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), who’s been briskly murdering his way to a dukedom. He is amorously closeted with the beautiful, flighty Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) when he is unexpectedly visited by a more recent acquaintance, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), who is there to say, “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”

To sing, that is, in what becomes a dazzling trip as Monty tries to keep Sibella hidden and ignorant of what’s happening, even as he assents to Phoebe’s decision. The staging literally revolves around a pair of doors with lightning-crisp choreography (thanks, Peggy Hickey!) and music that has charm and wit that’s been scarce on Broadway these days.

Kevin Massey and Mary VanArsdel
Gentleman's Guide
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder opened there in 2013, and its first national tour was just launched at Proctors with the necessary technical rehearsals and a week of performances.

The delightfully dark story began life as a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by actor-writer Roy Horniman, and became the 1949 film classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. The novel’s half-Jewish protagonist was turned half-Italian for the movie, which was a shrewd choice: A brutal war was a recent memory, and the novel has mistakenly been charged with anti-Semitism over the decades.

Its message of discrimination is rooted in class distinction, which is why its Edwardian-era English setting is too apposite to change. The screenplay preserved other character elements and some choice funny lines, but otherwise turned it into an Oscar Wilde-like comedy of manners, lightening the murders with caricature and brilliantly casting a young Alec Guinness as all eight victims.

Gentleman’s Guide preserves this structure, allowing the versatile John Rapson not only to inhabit nine members of the D’Ysquith family but also to sing and dance while doing so. He makes each of his characters charming enough to enjoy during what we know will be a truncated meeting and obnoxious enough to help us enjoy that truncation.

“I Don’t Understand the Poor,” he sings as Lord Adalbert in act one, giving the show its own “Why Can’t the English?” moment wherein our sympathies are more aligned with Monty only because those he seeks to remove are even more snobby than he is.

A lyric like “They finger every finial/They poke your cornerstone;/Who’d want to be reminded/Of what they’ll never own?” rhymes and scans naturally—rare, indeed—and is set to engaging music in such a way that comparisons with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan have been frequent. But this piece, the work of composer Steven Lutvak, who co-wrote lyrics with book-writer Robert L. Freedman, is no throwback (even if it borrows a portrait gallery from one G&S piece and Phoebe’s name from another). The lively, syncopated music harkens to musical theater’s pre-rock days, even as it slyly moves us from the elegance of three-quarter-time numbers into the more insistent four once the murders commence.

Compared to the novel, the Kind Hearts and Coronets murder techniques are engagingly inventive. Compared to the movie, Gentleman’s Guide gives us a spree that’s downright giddy. The impressively fey Henry duets with Monty in “Better With a Man” before the latter scents Henry’s apiary with English lavender. And as Monty duets with Phoebe, Henry’s toothsome sister, in “Inside Out,” the luckless Henry is pursued by a cartoonish but effectively realized swarm of bees, who do Monty’s work for him. The startling special effect is crowned by a close-up of the queen, and I was about to raise a point of verisimilitude when I remembered that the writer was quite right—queens only will sting other queens.

Projected effects abound, all of them surprising and all done very well, whether it be a rapid descent from a great height or a busily cloudy sky or the trees and snow of a winter resort. Aaron Rhyne created the effects, working with set designer Alexander Dodge, who decorated the stage with a miniature stage on which much of the action takes place, but which allows linking scenes to be played “in one,” harkening to music hall days.

The production wouldn’t be a fraction of the fun without the superb performances we saw. Massey’s Monty (now half-Castilian, for reasons that may have much to do with rhyme) is a charmer, as we expect a good bad guy to be. He’s an excellent singer and a deft physical comedian, whose skills in that realm are on relentless display.

“I Don’t Know What I’d Do,” sings Sibella when we meet her, asking Monty to adore her even as she fobs him off. Williams looks stunning, sings like a lark and convinces us she’s ceaselessly self-absorbed. On the other hand, Eller’s Phoebe is all selflessness and purpose, an equally effective acting job. Kudos, too, to Mary VanArsdel, a mystery woman whose song “You’re a D’Ysquith” kicks off the action that kicks off the heirs.

No matter how much you may adore the movie—and it’s one of my all-time favorites—the musical is its own excellent entity, with a couple of sly surprises for the fans of the film.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, choreography by Peggy Hickey, directed by Darko Tresnjak
Proctors, Mainstage, Sept. 23

Metroland Magazine, 1 October 2015

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