First came the novel by Roy Horniman, then the classic comedy film: Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness. Just recently this tongue-in-cheek, hilariously grim story has been adapted to musical theatre by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak. The result: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is a marvelous spoof of Agatha Christie’s archetypal paradigm of killing off victims one by one, and a cynical, heartless jab at the vapid British aristocracy.
Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) has just lost his devoted mother, when he is visited by (former nanny?) Miss Shingle, who divulges he is actually an heir to the D’Ysquith fortune, through a previous indiscretion between his mother and a handsome rogue. Only eight other cousins stand between Monty and the staggering sum, and Miss Shingle encourages Monty to pursue this. His initial queries into the matter are met (as you might expect) with arrogance and hostility. Along this twisted odyssey he wrestles with married, life long love, Sibella, and newfound romance with cousin Phoebe. He discovers that while some D’Ysquiths are terribly vile, others, though eccentric, are perfectly charming. He even finds true friendship with one cousin who’s hired him to work at his legal firm. How could poor, conflicted Monty even consider taking this man’s life?
The genius of A Gentleman’s Guide….is chiefly two-fold. First, with songs and sentiments like “I Don’t Understand the Poor” (in the fine tradition of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) Freedman and Lutvak positively skewer the privileged class, and any sympathy whatsoever for the D’Ysquiths. Despite digression and mitigation. Ezekiel, a minister and the first cousin Monty meets, assumes he is a “climber” without knowing anything else about him, and says as much. Second, fate conspires to make each murder as easy as the next. As if cosmic justice were simply being handed to Monty with a map. Like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, just when Monty’s sinister plan seems to be in jeopardy, events intervene to save his proverbial bacon.
You might say that A Gentleman’s Guide… is a grand example of nothing succeeding like excess. John Rapson plays all the D’Ysquiths with dexterity and panache. The content is imbued with wry unbuffered ghoulishness, many of the murders accomplished with cartoonish glee. The subtext is clearly on Monty’s side, with the perverse irony that karma is abetting a charming, admirable serial killer. We don’t wince at say, a decapitation because the victims are all crackpots or despotic. We laugh as we witness this succession of executions, so ridiculously easy they are emptied of all gravitas. My one, trivial criticism of this thoroughly pleasurable musical romp is a kind of backpedaling sop to morality just before the final curtain falls. But don’t let that ruin it for you. I certainly didn’t.
ATTPAC Broadway Series presents A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, playing August 16th-28th, 2016 at The Winspear Opera House. 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.attpac.org