A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the kind of show that you ask people about and get, in response, a shrug. “It won a Tony,” they say. Indeed it did: the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical. So it must be good, right?
Well, yes and no. The show — which is at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, in a touring version of the Broadway production, through January 10 — is certainly very well-crafted. The first act follows (anti)hero Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) though a series of merry murders as he eliminates obstacles standing between him and a lucrative lordship in early 20th century London. In the second act, Monty confronts the last of the D’Ysquith line (John Rapson) at an uproarious dinner party, as his wife (Adrienne Eller) and mistress (Kristen Beth Williams) spar over his affections.
Rapson plays all the D’Ysquith heirs in sequence — a flamboyant act of showmanship that cycles the versatile actor through a range of gentry stereotypes (the carnal playboy, the gleefully gay eccentric, the stout old maid, the adventuring do-gooder, and so forth). The show’s greatest virtue, in an era where many Broadway shows rely on a brand name and an impressive set, is its celebration of good old-fashioned overacting.
The contrivance of the set — a meta-creation by Alexander Dodge, in which Monty tells his own story on a stage-within-a-stage — is also merrily transparent, with wheeled platforms and flying feathers handling duties for scenes of ice-skating and murder (respectively). Even the video screen gets its share of giggles — particularly in the Vertigo-like scene in which a drunken pastor meets his bloody demise.
Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the pace brisk and the action seamlessly fluid, and Steven Lutvak’s music and lyrics (Robert L. Freedman wrote the book, based on a 1907 novel) clip along in a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche that features such compressed wordplay, it’s sometimes difficult to make out the lyrics as the outrageously accented characters hold forth. Musically, it feels sort of like a two-hour version of the horse-race number from My Fair Lady — but maybe you’re into that.
While the show feels more vibrant than the average Broadway offering, one thing it certainly doesn’t feel is fresh. That’s not, of course, what it’s trying for: it’s a farcical thriller that’s both a tribute to and a send-up of those that have gone before. The show’s popcorn value, though, is diminished by its reliance on a sort of Edwardian hipster racism: a trafficking in ideas about race, gender, and sexuality that ought to have died with the era.
It’s with a fusillade of winks, of course, that A Gentleman’s Guide sends its fey beekeeper prancing about, and sends its well-intentioned society lady to “darkest Africa” (cue tribal mask), and sends its money-minded maiden off to bed a well-heeled bore. Never mind the Bechdel Test: this show has a whole musical number celebrating the virgin-whore complex.
It’s all in good fun, the show’s producers seem to believe — but how much fun is it, really, to watch yet another show where a straight, handsome white guy plays protagonist while the ladies and gays and (unseen) people of color figure as comic relief? The fact that many of those supporting characters are played by yet another white guy doesn’t improve matters. A Gentleman’s Guide goes down easy, but doesn’t necessarily sit well once it gets there.