New this week via the Broadway tour producers SHNSF is the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best New Musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. It's a thoroughly English, darkly comic, and brilliantly staged jewelbox of a show that manages to be a sure crowd pleaser without the aid of much catchy music. That's not to say the music isn't good, but in the style of light comic opera or a long-gone era of musical theater, the majority of these songs tell stories within the scenes and help advance the plot, complete with intricate rhymes.
At the heart of the show is Monty Navarro (played by the dashing and affable Kevin Massey), who discovers at the outset of Act 1, in the year 1909, that he's eighth in line for an earl-ship in a family called D'Ysquith, from which his recently deceased mother was disowned after she eloped with a Castillian. The entire D'Ysquith clan turns out to be a comically shallow and despicable bunch, and Monty soon sets out to plot the demise of the seven D'Ysquiths in line for the succession ahead of him film buffs may recognize the plot here as similar to that of the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, which like this show was based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman.
Driving Monty's lust for a title and a fortune is his love for Sibella (played with great physical comedy skill by Kristen Beth Williams), his blonde and voluptuous mistress who intends to marry for money, but nonetheless keep Monty around for love and sex. And along the way, Monty seeks out each of the ridiculous buffoons and snobs named D'Ysquith whom he needs to hurry toward death, each of them played with tireless, scene-chewing bravado by the young John Rapson. (This role, which demands a total of eight different costumes, voices, and broadly comic personae in quick succession won a Tony for the actor who originated it on Broadway, Jefferson Mays, and gave the great Alec Guinness a chance to show off his own virtuosity in the 1949 film.) Rapson shines perhaps most hilariously as the closeted gay brother, Henry, of Monty's eventual fiancée, Phoebe D'Ysquith (Adrienne Eller, a Bay Area native, who is both an astonishingly good singer and comedienne), and as the hilarious and insincerely philanthropic Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith, who cheats death at least four times before meeting her maker, much to Monty's frustration.
The intricate stage-within-the-stage set designed by Alexander Dodge is as much a versatile character in the production as Rapson, morphing with the aid of clever old-fashioned stage-craft as well as a modern LED display at the rear to become a huge range of backdrops for the comic action. One particular outdoor ice-skating sequence in Act 1 is goofily funny and not to be missed.
The music, by Steven Lutvak with Robert L. Freedman, is lively and great throughout, but the only truly memorable number in the show is the one that Broadway fans have likely already seen online or at last year's Tonys, the song "I've Decided to Marry You," which is a dense and delightful three-way round between Monty, Pheobe, and Sibella that's aided by a farcical set piece and Massey's limber, ping-pong-ish choreography.
There are multiple songs in other scenes, like the hilariously homoerotic "Better With a Man," sung by Henry and Monty, and Lady Hyacinth's travel number, "Lady Hyacinth Abroad," that are equally delightful and applause-worthy, but none that rise to the level of memorable, melodically. And unlike another style of musical, none of these songs really stands on its own divorced from the play itself and the plot points marked by each one. That's not to say, though, that there are not many moments in which great singers, particularly Massey and Eller, are given chances to shine and show of their instruments. It's just the type of score, and the type of deeply literate lyrics, that will thrill fans of Gilbert & Sullivan more than fans of Cander & Ebb.
I won't spoil any more of the story, but the success of this show has much more to do with its staging and the talent of its cast than it does with any particular plot surprises.
It is, though, undoubtedly, going to be the most erudite and English musical you'll see all season.