“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” the Tony-winning musical playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre through July 31, manages to skewer stuffy social mores and delight Edwardian mystery fans.
There are no electronic instruments in the pit, no lasers flashing, no rap verses heard and, for the most part, the show would be right at home in Edwardian England.
Nevertheless, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the 5th Avenue Theatre is one of the hippest productions in town right now. That’s especially true for, but not exclusive to, fans of British murder mysteries, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and highly diverting theatrical high jinks.
The recipient of the best new musical Tony Award in 2014, this romping whodunit was a dark-horse Broadway hit and has toured to Seattle in dandy shape, from the jewel-box set to the madcap verve of the players.
‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
Through July 31 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $36 (206- 625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Creators Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak and the show’s ingenious director Darko Tresnjak also had a deliciously black-comic plot to begin with. Inspired by the classic movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (which starred Alec Guinness), author Freedman and composer Lutvak could not secure rights to the screenplay about a charmingly ruthless climber intent on dispatching eight relatives standing between him and a title, an estate and a fortune.
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So they went to the initial source of the story, Roy Horniman’s tongue-in-cheek 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” and added many of their own flourishes to the confessions of the now-named Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a desperate orphan who discovers he’s related to the lofty D’Ysquith clan, which shunned his mother for (horrors!) marrying a Spanish musician.
After trying the polite way to get their help, and being soundly rebuffed, Monty decides to murder his way to a lordship — while romancing both a saucy coquette named Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and a sweet D’Ysquith cousin, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller).
What makes “Gentleman’s Guide” more than a blithe conceit is the zaniness of the scheming, and in the score, dialogue and co-written lyrics, the witty synthesis of many strands of satire. Lutvak’s delightful score for chamber orchestra and voices borrows blithely from Gilbert and Sullivan and opéra bouffe masters like Jacques Offenbach, with a twinkle of Sondheim here and there, as in the dark-tinged love ballad “Sibella.”
And Freedman’s book misses no opportunity to make mincemeat of the worst sort of Edwardian nobles for their snobbery, colonial prejudices, eccentricities and general nastiness. We get a good dollop of that when one of the most obnoxious D’Ysquith heirs slams the less fortunate in the nimble tune “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”
That gentleman is played by John Rapson, who does a fine job camping it up as all eight of the relations on Monty’s hit list. While not quite as charismatic a chameleon as Jefferson Mays was in the Broadway version, Rapson is still winningly dexterous as he dons and discards costumes and identities. Most funny (and loathsome) are his quick cameos as an uncharitable reverend, the self-serving do-gooder Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, and Monty’s final rival Lord Adalbert, who engages in constant, bilious arguments with his equally horrid wife.
The other three leads fulfill their singing demands beautifully. Massey shines as the occasionally ambivalent but ardently determined Monty, and is well-matched by Williams (as Sibella) and Eller (as Phoebe). The scene where Monty is literally caught between the two as they occupy adjoining rooms during the trio “I’ve Decided to Marry You” is vintage French farce, executed with door-slamming aplomb.
Much credit for the Swiss-watch timing of that scene, as well as for the shape-shifting scampering of a strong six-member chorus and much else, goes to Tresnjak, whose many clever directorial touches add value. And Alexander Dodge’s stage-within-a-stage set evokes numerous period locales with portraits that talk, coats of arms that dance, Edward Gorey imagery and a circular stairway in a cathedral bell tower that rivals the one in “Vertigo.”