“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is pure delicious fun, a superbly crafted musical that, in its sparkling inaugural national touring incarnation, is being delivered with the greatest panache. There is a reason this musical, playing for just two weeks at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre, received four 2014 Tony Awards, including best musical.
Every element of this lavish show is precision-tuned satire: the wildly comic, endlessly ingenious direction of Darko Tresnjak; the splendid invention of his design team; the amazing transformation of one actor (John Rapson), who plays nine different roles so brilliantly you hardly can believe it’s the same person; the utterly dashing and mischievous Kevin Massey (who plays a single role to perfection); the clarion voices and competitive charms of its two female stars (Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe), and every other member of the altogether exceptional ensemble whose powerful voices blend beautifully under the music direction of Lawrence Goldberg.
‘A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER’
When: Through Oct. 11
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Tickets: $25 – $123
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Robert L. Freeman, the show’s book writer and co-lyricist (with composer Steven Lutvak), has based his story on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” But if you’ve ever caught the wonderful 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness, you will be familiar with the zany plot — a story that is at once a terrific send-up of the British class system and an homage to all things theatrical.
In brief: We are in Edwardian-era London, where Monty Navarro (Massey), a charming, mild-mannered but penniless young chap, has just buried his mother. Enter Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel), who informs him that his mother was from the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, but was disinherited because she married a man far below her station. Monty, as it turns out, is now eighth in line to become an Earl. And he realizes that having that title might give him a far better chance with his mistress, the wealthy, supremely sexy Sibella Hallward (Williams). Of course that means eight people will have to perish.
Rapson, who plays the entire D’Ysquith clan, is spectacular, morphing from a Quasimodo-like preacher to a nasty banker, to a gay country gent, to a surprisingly resilient do-gooder dowager, to a pompous veteran of the Boer War, and to both one quite decent man and one most surprising fellow. So is Massey, who, as Monty, discovers that after the first “accidental demise” the whole process comes surprisingly easily to him. And gradually, as “The Last One You’d Expect” (as a song title so perfectly puts it), he is not only moving closer and closer to being Earl of Highhurst, but is being hotly pursued by both Sibella and his quirky but fetching fiancee, Phoebe (Eller).
In fact, these women’s pursuit of Monty is the catalyst for the show-stopping trio “I’ve Decided to Marry You” — so sublimely conceived, and so brilliantly performed here by Eller (in the tradition of a Madeline Kahn), Williams and Massey, that you might be tempted to proclaim: Eat your heart out Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (“Inside Out,” a duet for Monty and Phobe, also is a knockout.)
So just why is Monty found writing his confessional memoir in a stone-cold prison? And what is in store for him after he eludes murder charges? None of that will not be revealed here. Just be assured that every piece of this beguiling musical comedy works like a charm.
Designer Alexander Dodge’s stage-within-a-stage set (winningly animated by Aaron Rhyne’s projections) is pure, ever-shifting eye candy of the highest order. And were Lindo Cho’s ravishing costumes put on sale in the lobby, every woman in the audience would buy them. Like the show as a whole, they are irresistible theatrical confections.