Saturday, October 03, 2015

Deftly Daftly Deathly: A Fine, If Fleeting, 'Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
a recent musical
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 11

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (referenced from here on out as GGLM) won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical.

I have not yet seen last year's three other nominees--After Midnight, Aladdin and Beautiful--and though I am looking forward to the Carole King songbook musical in December, it's not hard to imagine GGLM being far more inventive than Beautiful, a biography with great but pre-existing songs.

While GGLM reminds of Agatha Christie--especially as I just read And Then There Was None--mixed with Monty Python, Gilbert & Sullivan and Peter Sellers playing multiple roles in the same film (or Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, etc.), for a modern day musical it feels rather original and distinctive.

More engaging for its sharp humor and clever staging than its music--though the songs by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman contain much wit and are melodic enough--GGLM makes for a fun night of entertainment, perhaps especially so for those less than effusive about traditional musicals.

Yet while this is a positive review of a show I admired and enjoyed, in having seen all of this century's Best Musicals except this year's Fun Home, I believe it fair to say GGLM is fortunate not to have had tonier Tony competition.

Photos by Joan Marcus; of the Broadway cast, not the actors in Chicago
Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, but not to my knowledge directly inspired by real-life events, GGLM names its protagonist Monty Navarro.

Played on the National Tour, now at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre, by Kevin Massey, Monty is a clean-cut young Brit who tells most of his tale as a flashback while writing his memoirs from prison the night before his slated execution.

He recalls having been told by a mysterious woman that he is a member of the aristocratic D'Ysquith family, from whom his mother was cast out for marrying below her position.

After being informed that he is 9th in line to become the Earl of Highhurst, Monty--i.e. Lord Montague D'Ysquith Navarro--sets off an a killing spree of the D'Ysquiths ahead of him, in part to impress his beautiful girlfriend Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) who is about to marry a man of greater social standing.

I won't reveal how Monty carries out the slayings, but as this is a dark comedy, there is both ingenuity and hilarity in many of his methods.

And though I didn't fully catch on until near the end of Act I, all of the D'Ysquiths--male and female, save for Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), the beauteous wife of one of the victims, who becomes an additional romantic interest of Monty's--are played by the same actor, Kevin Massey. (He's listed in the Playbill as playing "The D'Ysquith Family" so I'm not giving too much away.)

The staging, by director Darko Tresnjak with scenic design by Alexander Dodge, is rather brilliant, and many LOL guffaws accompanied the macabre-cum-madcap murders and much else, including the way Massey "executes" his multiple roles.

Up in the upper balcony, with women behind me talking and eating boxed "movie candy" throughout, I missed several lines that garnered laughs, whether in the dialogue or the clever lyrics. (I hadn't listened to the Broadway Cast Album ahead of time because I wanted to freshly hear the humor.)

I still believe I got most of the essence of GGLM, though wouldn't mind seeing it a few years hence in a much more intimate venue.

And while the music by Steven Lutvak stylistically serves the cheeky tone of a chamber (and period) piece rather than being a typical Broadway score--even in terms of high-comedy musicals, it isn't sonically akin to The Producers, Spamalot or The Book of Mormon--there are a good number of strong songs amid the storytelling tunes.

I especially enjoyed the opening, "A Warning to the Audience," as well as "I Don't Understand the Poor" sung by John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, "Better With a Man," a duet between Monty and Henry D'Ysquith (Phoebe's husband) and "I've Decided to Marry You," sung mainly by Phoebe, though also Sibella and Monty.

GGLM is certainly quality entertainment, and nobody wanting to see it shouldn't based on anything I'm intimating.

It is clever, witty, cute, funny, well-done, original, unique, irreverent, terrific and in ways, brilliant.

But even as I was watching it, at times unsure of the line separating funny and silly being traipsed, I had the sense that GGLM isn't a musical--or simply a striking piece of theater, since it doesn't aim to be a Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, Wicked, etc., type of show--that will long stick with me.

There is nothing wrong with completely solid "light" entertainment, and this extremely smart show is superb in its own right and perhaps to many--including Tony voters--all the more special for what it isn't.

As my friend Paolo, who saw GGLM with me on Wednesday night, said, "I can't think of another show that's really like this."

So it's quite possible that if you love quirky of humor and aren't so enamored by traditional show tunes, you'll not only enjoy GGLM a bit more than I did, but perhaps even a good bit more than many of the musicals I consider far superior and more substantive.

I'm glad that I saw it, and rather soon after it won Best Musical in June 2014.

But I'm just not convinced that it should have.

No comments: