“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is the painless bon bon currently at the Ahmanson. It is pure dessert; there is not an essential vitamin, mineral or an iota of fiber in sight. Winner of the 2014 Tony award for a musical, it is the sort of deceptive silliness that requires pitch perfect timing and carefully honed talent to pull off.
First there is the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, fabulously wealthy, incredibly entitled. We meet Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith (John Rapson) gleefully singing “I don’t understand the poor,” a chip off the old Gilbert and Sullivan block if I have ever heard one, and seemingly timely in this protracted election season. Then there is poor Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) with nary a prospect in sight. But wait … a knock at the door and in waltzes Miss Shingle (Mary Vanarsdel) an old housekeeper of the D’Ysquiths. Lo and behold, she discloses that Monty’s mom, who slaved away as a laundress and housekeeper, was a D’Ysquith. She had married — horrors of all horrors – a Castilian and been thrown out by the family. Only eight D’Ysquiths stand between Monty and inheriting the D’Ysquith domain. In spring such a young man’s fancy might turn to MURDER and this musical is there to deliver the tale.
But wait. Does this story line sound a bit familiar? Not surprising. In 1949 Alec Guinness played all eight of the ill fated heirs in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” which, in turn was based on a 1909 novel by Roy Horniman. John Rapson plays them brilliantly in “A Gentleman’s Guide.” He embodies every one from the Lords D’Ysquith to Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith (as whom he bares a strong resemblance to the classic drawings of Alice’s Red Queen). He is deliciously unpleasant, making his every demise a delight.
Silly as it all is, “A Gentleman’s Guide” works. Steven Lutvak’s sprightly music hall tunes and lyrics are delivered with precision, Darko Tresnjak’s direction has nary a misstep, and the cast is perfect. To the extent that you can make an emotional connection with any of the characters, Kevin Massey portrays the most sympathetic of assassins. The tongue in cheek set by Alexander Dodge is ingeniously in keeping with the material: e.g. Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith’s toppling demise is represented by the black and white projection of an almost infinite spiraling staircase ending in an enveloping splat of red, ice skaters slide by using obvious but effective stagecraft. All great fun.
In you have any room on your calendar, I would say, ‘go ahead and have dessert,’ it won’t kill you to sit back and be charmed by “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” but a full diet of this kind of nonsense would be too much.