CLEVELAND — The first thing that intrigues you is the musical's title: "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical playing in Cleveland through Nov. 15 as part of a national tour.
The title obviously hints it's a comedy. But it’s not the type of funny material you'd expect to see in musical theater these days. "Gentleman's Guide" is a witty musical comedy, something uncommon in today’s offerings within the genre.
When it opened on the Great White Way in 2013, the Broadway theater community welcomed the show as enthusiastically as our murderer-hero Monty Navarro received news that he's a distant heir to a family fortune.
This dizzyingly devious, delirious, delicious musical to die for will keep your eyes riveted to the stage as you root for a mostly unlikely hero.
Navarro’s a poor man who never knew, until now, that his late mother married into a dynasty. There's a hierarchy within the family to inherit the title of Earl of Highhurst -- and he stands as the ninth person in that line. So what would be so terrible if he, um, dispatches the eight relatives ahead of him to win the title...and the girl.
Navarro doesn't only see green at this opportunity, as he ultimately wishes to win his love. That's partly why we can sympathize with this serial killer — one who's so charming, so eager, so innocent and shocked at the news of his identity you want to cuddle up to him and pinch his cheeks like a proud grandma would do to her shy grandson.
"Dizzy" is an apt adjective to describe this Edwardian farce, which moves at a cat-quick pace, with rapid-fire costume changes (111, according to the program) and one actor playing all eight of the D'Ysquith family members ahead of Navarro to receive the earlship.
Yes, they're all murdered, but it's hard to shed too much tears; they've been spoiled rotten, and possess inflated egos and eccentric, often annoying personalities. Not only that, they disinherited Navarro's mother who DARED not to marry for money or property.
On Broadway, actor Jefferson Mays won Best Actor In A Musical honors in 2014 for seamlessly playing each of the different D'Ysquith family members. The accolades were well-deserved; each time he emerged as someone else, he was unrecognizable. The same holds true for John Rapson in this touring version. With changes in posture, facial expressions and inflections in his voice, Rapson makes you believe you're seeing eight different people running the gamut from a vicious fox hunter to a confused bishop and a closeted bee aficionado...not to mention female characters.
Not to take anything away from Rapson, but the costumes help immensely. They've been designed by Linda Cho, who received a Tony for her work on Broadway. The costumes convey the elegance of the Edwardian era and not only are gorgeous, but easily slip on and off, differentiate the characters and reinforce mood.
Rapson rightfully received the loudest applause during the curtain call of the show I attended, but Tony nominee Kevin Massey also shines as our lovable murderer.
He imbues Navarro with a boyish, wide-eyed charm in the beginning, contrasting nicely with the confident women who won’t even let him get a word in.
Rapson's likability, eagerness, innocence and wide-eyed determination, which grows into a deviousness that never comes across as malicious, all work to win us over.
In the role, Massey is not unlike Daniel Radcliffe, whom I could easily envision playing Navarro.
Rapson displays nice chemistry with his character's love interests, Sibella Hallward (a seductive Kristen Beth Williams) and Phoebe D'Ysquith (an innocent Adrienne Eller).
The farcical nature of the show includes this love triangle, and director Darko Tresnjak (Tony winner for best direction) ensures the comedic timing is on spot. He also clearly contrasts the stiff upper class D'Ysquiths with the humble, endearing everyman, Navarro.
Alexander Dodge (a Tony nominee for his set design) has created a Victorian-style toy theatre that's positioned center stage. It's a stage within a stage, resting higher than the actual stage. This helps highlight actors and actions, and also reinforces that the D'Ysquiths are aristocratic, a rung above the average person.
The red, rumpled curtain on this "toy theater" stage closes rapidly at the end of the scenes, giving the production the feel of the English Music Hall (a British counterpart to vaudeville.)
The atmosphere also includes visual pleasing projections by Aaron Rhyne, featuring everything from a breathtaking winter scene to an enchanting garden.
Philip S. Rosenberg, a nominee for lighting design, bathes the stage largely in red — the perfect color to symbolize love and murder (blood).
The mood-enhancing music by Tony nominees Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak has a dark, foreboding, mysterious quality and also features cheery, upbeat melodies. The pieces are sung with gusto, expression, clarity and some impressively high, long-sustained notes by this fine cast, backed by a lush, live orchestra.
There are plenty of clever rhymes and witty, intricate lyrics, reminding one, perhaps, of the sophistication of Stephen Sondheim or Noel Coward. On the other hand, fans of Monty Python, Jim Carrey or Bryan Cranston in the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle” might find themselves nodding in agreement during the slapstick-style portions of the musical.
"Gentleman's Guide," can also remind one of the films of Woody Allen, with the voiceovers from Navarro.
He's not the only murderer with whom we've come to sympathize in musical theater. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" springs to mind when watching "A Gentleman's Guide," although Navarro is hardly a "demon."
He's a cuddly murderer. And a gentleman.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
WHEN: Through Nov. 15
WHERE: Connor Palace at downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square
For ticket information, visit www.playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.