Dallas — A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now playing as the latest installment in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series, is a clever mix of posh puns and off-color jokes, a modern-day throwback to the earlier days of musical theater with a healthy dash of Gilbert and Sullivan witticism. Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s 2014 Tony Award winner may be a strange recipe to some, but the end result is an entertaining ride, and one quite different from most of the shows you’ll find gracing the New York marquees.
The show focuses on Kevin Massey’s Monty D’Ysquith Navarro, a likable, down-on-his-luck anti-hero who discovers that he’s in the line of succession to an earldom. He’s an Edwardian Dexter of sorts who you can’t help but cheer for even as he kills his way through family tree to earn his place at the top. Massey’s gentle, high baritone is well-suited to the music, and his transformation from boyish and bashful to calculating, cunning ladder climber is somehow still charming thanks to his expressive acting.
John Rapson is a comedic chameleon, quick-changing his way through the unfortunate fates of the D’Ysquith family. He throws himself fully into each character, from a halitosis-ridden priest to the weapons-obsessed earl. He plays off the rest of the cast effortlessly, whether donning a dress or drowning to death, and his connection with the audience is particularly fun to watch. His performance is perhaps the most over-the-top of all of the cast, but delightfully so, and even that doesn’t disguise the booming power of his beautiful, full voice.
Kristen Beth Williams shines as shallow but sly socialite Sibella, who is maybe more paste jewel than rare gem. She twirls between pouty petulant and seductive siren in numbers like “I Don’t Know What I’d Do,” pushing Monty away with one arm while gathering him to her bosom with the other. She may not want him (that is, until his prospects start looking prosperous) but she doesn't want anyone else to have him either.
Adrienne Eller’s ebullient Phoebe D’Ysquith, Monty’s demure cousin, is the perfect foil for Sibella’s abundant charms. Where Williams is tall and statuesque, Eller is petite and proper, with a trilling coloratura voice that frolics merrily through her songs. Phoebe is taken with Monty at first glance, and represents all the things he should aspire to in a wife. But she has hidden depths, which Eller plays nicely in “That Horrible Woman,” her duet with Williams.
Darko Tresnjak’s direction is perhaps at its best during the sequence between Eller, Massey, and Willams in “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” where Monty finds himself torn between the lure of Sibella’s embrace and the promise of a future with Phoebe—all while trying to keep them from discovering the other in separate rooms of his apartment. The cheeky choreography and staging combined with the gorgeous harmonies arranged by Lutvak and Dianne Adams McDowell make this one of the best scenes in the show.
The ensemble in the production is responsible for a number of roles, including that of an almost Greek chorus at different points throughout the acts. Make no mistake, this show requires serious vocal chops, and every ensemble member is more than up to the job. Arrangements and staging to complement the small size of the cast give the impression that they’re more in numbers than they actually are, a deliberate choice by Freedman, Lutvak, and company.
Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is quite well done, featuring a gilded Vaudevillian stage dead center and taking advantage of a well-utilized video screen across the very back that is used for smart sight gags and background changes. Sliding set pieces easily move scenes from place to place with minimal fanfare to take away from the action on stage.
One extremely pleasant surprise is Dan Moses Schreier’s excellent sound design. It would be easy for the complex harmonies to become muddy or fast-paced lyrical lines to be lost. Past touring productions at the Winspear have suffered from their sound being swallowed by the room, but the singers sounded crystal clear and were balanced well with the orchestra.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is perhaps the best yet in a surprisingly strong season of Broadway-caliber tours, a striking difference from lineups even just across the city (non-equity tours, we are looking at you). It may not be for everyone, but this fun and farcical production has a little something for anyone who likes to laugh.
» Read our interview with Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak here.
» Don't forget that TheaterJones and ATTPAC are co-hosting an Industry Night for Gentleman's Guide, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23. You can read more about Industry Night, which includes discounted tickets and an after party with members of the cast and is co-presented by TheaterJones, here.