A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

The cast with John Rapson as Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith in a scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The sharp as a tack (or perhaps an axe) national touring company of the Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder was delivered in bloody good form to the 5th Avenue Theatre last week. A Gentlemen’s Guide is based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. The novel was also the source for the classic 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets–however, apparently for legal reasons, that title was not permitted to be used. The show opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre November 17, 2013, running until January 17, 2016. The Broadway production won four Tony’s at the 68th Tony Awards in June 2014, including Best Musical.

As a production, I would most assuredly give A Gentleman’s Guide a 5-dagger rating. As written, I would give it a rock-solid 4-hacksaw nod, mostly because of a few derivative aspects of the tale. But most audience members won’t know the borrowings, and they really don’t take away from delight in the production.

The uproarious skull-and-bones plot concerns one Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst, who is in jail writing his memoirs, to be titled A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, on the eve of his possible execution. Flashing back a few years, a dubious and heretofore unknown older woman informs Monty that he is an heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune. Monty, a seemingly benign and amiable sort, rapidly sets out to eliminate eight pesky relatives who stand in the line of succession. All the while, Monty has to juggle his conniving mistress Sibella, his distant cousin/fiancée Phoebe, and the constant threat of being the mass murderer behind the falling branches of the D’ysquith family. Of course, it will be all worth it if he can succeed in slaying his way into his inheritance, without really trying, by tea time.

Director Darko Tresnjak sets the mayhem in merry motion at the outset, and it never stops spinning, aside for a breath of a couple of lovely ballads.

In the kind of tour de farce not seen since Sid Caesar played seven or so of the leading roles in the original 1962 Broadway version of Little Me, John Rapson cavorts his way through a succession of male and female D’ysquiths with hilarity and near legerdemain. To say much more would diminish the fun you will have catching him in the act.

With even more time on stage, Kevin Massey is a droll, appealing anti-hero as Monty, and sings like a dream. Kristen Beth Williams drips saucy, silly, sexuality as Sibella, and Adrienne Aller is a winsome but not too wide-eyed Cousin Phoebe. Ex-Seattle actress Mary Van Arsdel is a hoot and a half as the dotty old gal who reveals Monty’s lineage to him, and the spirited ensemble sings blithely and romps with abandon to some ingenious choreography by Peggy Hickey.

Alexander Dodge’s expensive looking stage-within-a-stage does more than remind one of The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s Music Hall Royale, but oh the ingenuity of Aaron Rhyne’s projection design. The sum of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’s parts is a pirate’s treasure indeed. If you are dying to laugh your head off, don’t miss this one!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre through July 31, 2016 only . For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at 5thavenue.org.