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Just a few seconds into the first act of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre there is no doubt as to why it won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. Cleverly written, charming to look at, and fall-out-of-your-chair funny at times, it embodies the wry satire one usually associates with the best British comedies. Add some truly stunning performances, and everyone who loves theater should be running, not walking to the box office to buy tickets.
To say that this is, essentially, the memoir of a man awaiting the verdict in his murder trial doesn’t say enough. To say this is the tale of the son of a woman disinherited by her noble family who plots to eliminate all those who stand in the way of his ascendency to the family Earldom would also not say enough. Combine all of this with the best elements of farce, commedia del arte, and the classic American musical, and that might come close.
Kevin Massey creates this man, one Monty Navarro, who finds out upon his mother’s death in 1907 that he is related to the extensive, noble, and extremely snobbish D’Ysquith family. Angered that his mother was disowned for marrying for love, he vows to get even. Massey gives his character an innate innocence, both in love and revenge, which makes him absolutely endearing and often extremely funny.
Balanced against Massey most often, the remarkable John Rapson creates the entire D’Ysquith family, distinct individual by distinct individual. When the chorus starts to sing “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” the observer has met most of them and watched them go in ways which prove funnier and funnier as time goes on, thanks both to Rapson’s sense of abandon and to the delightfully creative staging of director Darko Tresnjak.
Of course, this isn’t just about murder. As Monty’s longtime passion, Sibilla, Kristen Beth Williams strikes just the right note of vapidity and egocentrism. Playing counterpoint as Phoebe, the D’Ysquith cousin increasingly drawn to Monty, Adrienne Eller proves bookish, charming, and dynamic by turns. Indeed, the high point of the entire show may easily be the second act song in which Monty must balance himself between Sibilla in one room and Phoebe in another while trying to keep either from finding out the other is there.
Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s songs underscore the show’s silliness and help keep the pacing crisp. Add to this an ensemble of significant talent, place the thing on Alexander Dodge’s fascinatingly Victorian-yet-mobile set, grace it with Aaron Rhyne’s often hysterically animated projected backgrounds, Linda Cho’s amazingly quick-changeable costumes, and director Tresnjak’s whipcrack pacing, and you have an absolute delight from start to finish.
In short, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” offers the best lighthearted moment in the theater one could possibly expect. And sometimes, particularly when it’s this clever, this is one of the great gifts good theater can give to a troubled time.
What: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” When: Through May 1, 8 p.m. ‘Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org