Broadway in Cincinnatiâ€™s Gentlemanâ€™s Guide to Love & Murder is an Heir-Raising Experience
Review by Sheldon Polonsky of A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide to Love & Murder: Broadway in Cincinnati
A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide to Love & Murder, now playing at the Aronoff Center as part of the Broadway in Cincinnati series, opens with a warning to the audience delivered by a Sweeney Todd-esque chorus: â€œSo if youâ€™re smart, before we start, youâ€™d best departâ€¦For Godâ€™s sake go!â€ Luckily, none of the packed house at the Aronoff heeded the warning, and instead enjoyed a side-splitting romp of a show that won Tony Awards in 2014 for best musical, book and director. My warning to you is the opposite: get your tickets now and donâ€™t miss out on the fun.
A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide centers around Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a mild mannered Londoner who, on the eve of his motherâ€™s death, discovers that he is ninth in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst from the rich and powerful Dâ€™Ysquith family, who heartlessly disinherited his mother after she eloped with a Castilian musician and left her and her son to live in abject poverty. Of course he sets out to do, as his mistress says later, â€œwhat any of us would doâ€: bump them off one by one to move up in line. He does so using blithely ingenious methods, with the talented John Rapson portraying each of the doomed heirs broadly and uproariously, featuring the addled Reverend Lord Ezekial Dâ€™Ysquith, effeminate Henry Dâ€™Ysguith, and the desperately philanthropic matron Lady Hyacinth Dâ€™Ysquith, among others. To give any details of their deaths would be a crime, but trust that they are all depicted in eye-popping and rollicking fashion. All the while, Monty must juggle his romantic relationship with his beautiful mistress, Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and his earnestly attractive cousin, Phoebe Dâ€™Ysquith (Kristen Hahn). It is called A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide to LOVE &Murder, after all.
The great charm of watching A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide is its awareness of its own theatricality and its debt to a long heritage of musical theatre. Steven Lutvak, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the book and lyrics, pay deliberate homage to, among others, Gilbert and Sullivan, Lerner and Lowe, Me and My Girl, and the aforementioned Stephen Sondheimâ€™s Sweeney Todd (with the added benefit that unlike Sondheim, the uninitiated can actually discern most of the clever lyrics on the first go-around). Most of the action takes place on a stage within the stage, which seems like it could be limiting but actually appears quite expansive thanks to vibrant and technically impressive projections behind it. The show never takes itself too seriously and rarely lags in energy or pacing.
Sometimes when a show sparkles with a witty plot and production values, the contributions of the cast are left behind, but this should not be the case here. Rapson, who rightfully gets top billing as all the Dâ€™Ysquith heirs, is indefatigable and commanding. Also, if they gave a Tony award to backstage wardrobe assistants, his would surely have won for his seamlessly rapid changes. Masseyâ€™s portrayal of Monty is ingratiating and captivating, and easily overcomes any moral squeamishness in the audience to root for the amiable serial killer. Finally, both Williams and Hahn both shine as Montyâ€™s love interests and we can understand his difficulty in choosing between them. The entire cast, including the chorus, have impeccable stage presence and vocals.
If I have any reservations about the play, it would be that the second half lets the â€œheirâ€ out of the balloon a bit compared to the first. With such a clever premise, and most of Rapsonâ€™s Dâ€™Ysquiths dispatched, the writers seem to struggle with how to wrap it up, and some of the numbers after the intermission seem to be more filler than anything else (although a few, like â€œWhy Are All the Dâ€™Ysquiths Dyingâ€ and â€œIâ€™ve Decided to Marry Youâ€ still stand on their own merits.) The surprise twist at the end is not quite surprising or inventive enough to deliver the payoff that I would like. Still, by the time the second half rolls around, you are invested enough in Montyâ€™s story, and that of his paramours, that the let-down hardly dampens your overall enthusiasm.
A Gentlemanâ€™s Guide rightly got the acclaim it did on Broadway and will prove to be a winning night of theatre for even your most finnicky family member. It only runs through January 8th, so I would get your tickets soon by calling the box office at 513-621-2787 or online at http://www.cincinnatiarts.org/events/detail/gentlemans-guide. Otherwise, like the Dâ€™Ysquiths, they will soon be â€œheir today, gone tomorrowâ€.