One of the great things about the theater world is that there's room enough for all types of stories and productions. Big, bombastic musicals stand alongside small, intimate plays — as well as everything in between. And all are honored for their brilliance when it's earned.
The Tony Award winners for Best Musical almost always reflect this openness, with both dramatic and comedic musicals, and all types of music, being showcased. While A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the 2014 Best Musical winner, at first doesn’t seem to fit alongside other recent winners like The Book of Mormon, Fun Home, or Hamilton, its old-fashioned nature is precisely what makes it so interesting and fun.
Set in 1909 London, Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a solidly middle-class Englishman, is given some shocking news: He has royal blood in his veins, but his mother had been disavowed by the D’Ysquith family years earlier. The love of his life, Sibella Hallward (Dallas native Kristen Beth Williams), wants to marry him except for one small fact: The person she weds must have money and power.
While exploring how to take advantage of his newfound royal discovery, Monty hatches a plan: If he can somehow get rid of the eight remaining D’Ysquith heirs, he will inherit the title of Earl and be able to convince Sibella to marry him. This sets in motion a veritable bloodbath, as Monty finds ingenious ways to kill each living D’Ysquith, while trying to hide his murderous ways.
In many respects, this production is a hybrid between a farce and a melodrama. Throw in the musical element, and it’s easy to see why it earned so many plaudits when it first debuted, as it enchants even as you’re wondering how it’s working its spell. One of the main ways is by having the same person (John Rapson) play every member of the D’Ysquith family, a concept that becomes funnier and funnier with each costume he wears and accent he acquires.
Unlike most musicals, the music is not really the star. The songs are serviceable, moving the plot along, but there are only a few that will stick with you after you leave the theater. They include “Better With a Man” and “The Last One You’d Expect” in the first act, and “I’ve Decided to Marry You” in the second act. However, divorced of their context, it’s difficult to imagine them having the same impact while listening to them in your car.
Instead, it’s the broad acting that does the trick. Rapson obviously gets the most play, given the number of characters he inhabits, but, after a slow start, Massey is every bit his equal. Williams, soon to be seen in Lyric Stage's Camelot, has much success playing the tarty and shallow Sibella, but it’s another woman, Kristen Mengelkoch, who absolutely steals the show in the second act as Lady Eugenia, the wife of Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith. Her bile-filled arguments with Rapson are enthralling and hilarious, with no music required.
The story, the acting, and the small details, including the surprising flexibility of the set, all combine to make A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder a worthy addition to the list of recent great musicals. Its lack of memorable songs enhances the theater world’s idea of inclusiveness, showing that a great and, in this case, funny story can make up for even seemingly big faults.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs at Winspear Opera House through August 28.