“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” tidily wraps serial murder into an operetta packet with a big ribbon of farce. The 2013 show, touring through the end of this month at the Kennedy Center as its respectable Broadway tenure ends this Sunday, is skillfully written and lightly performed. It is very nice indeed.
Faint praise? Maybe that’s because this entirely capable enterprise comes freighted with the prestige of the 2014 Best Musical Tony Award. (It topped “Aladdin,” “After Midnight,” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”) That acclaim skews expectations above the actual reach of this genial but less-than-dazzling affair. True to its title, it is dainty and quaint, as twee as can be. It’s as if PBS got into the musical comedy biz.
“A Gentleman’s Guide” is based on the 1907 novel by Roy Horniman that inspired the 1949 British movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a picture that featured Alec Guinness as the eight victims of a genteel young man murdering his way up the family line. “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a twisted love story, and class injustice motors the plot: Young Monty Navarro learns he was robbed of his heritage among the snobby D’Ysquiths, a family name that is ominously pronounced “DIE-squith.”
“You’re a D’Ysquith,” an astonished Monty is informed in one of the typically jaunty tunes by composer Steven Lutvak, who co-wrote the lyrics with book writer Robert L. Freedman. Suddenly Monty, who is too poor to win the heart of an addled, ravishing and ambitious woman named Sibella, sees opportunity.
The plot is musical hall froth. The gentle tone seems hard-wired into Lutvak’s music, which is droll, waltzy, and well-sung. Gilbert and Sullivan or Henry Higgins may come to mind as you listen to the pompous Lord Adalbert (one of the D’Ysquiths) brusquely bellow “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”
“And they’re constantly turning out more,” goes one of the patter-y rhymes.
Adalbert is played as a top-hatted lord with a riding crop and a dastardly mustache by John Rapson, who has the showy roles of all eight doomed D’Ysquiths. He’s an energetic churchman with a dramatic overbite, a rural landlord with a randy eye for Monty, and evena bosomy English matron named Lady Hyacinth, who’s just dying to be a Third World philanthropist. Her British Empire stereotypes of lands afar draw her toward the “exotic and unknowable” peoples she might single-handedly uplift.
“Forgotten and unblessed,” warbles Rapson’s ample Hyacinth, “I’ll take them to my breast!”
Rapson manages his quick changes and exotic characterizations with a comic strut and a gleam in his eye; the show couldn’t survive on less. Nor could it do without the vocal ability the cast brings to the throwback score, which gets high marks for its precise rhymes, crisp rhythms and sense of character.
Adrienne Eller bubbles as Monty’s second love interest, the innocent Phoebe, perkily singing the fizzy “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” As the more risque Sibella, Kristen Beth Williams is a complicated siren whose notes run up and down the staff until she croons with just a hint of suggestion, “Don’t you just love me in pink?”
Monty gets some serious music, too, especially the wonderfully shadowy love song “Sibella,” which leaves no doubt about how haunted he is. The sure-voiced Kevin Massey is nifty as Monty, never losing our rooting interest as this sweet-faced young gent subtly knocks off his relatives.
Director Darko Tresnjak honors all the ambitions of the show, high and low. Alexander Dodge’s plush and funny design features an old music-hall stage, footlights and all, with video projections from Aaron Rhyne that bring a delightful comic snap to many of the murders. The excellent Edwardian costumes are by Linda Cho — like Tresnjak and Freedman, a Tony winner for this effort — and she knows how to make the characters look great or goofy.
That’s a lot to like, if not love, and it’s a big plus that the show doesn’t make you seethe angrily at its low commercial cunning, the way so many Broadway movie knockoffs and jukebox musicals do. To give it its due, “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a considered exercise in style — and it’s nothing if not well-executed.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Choreography, Peggy Hickey; lights, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound design, Dan Moses Schreier. With Mary VanArsdel, Christopher Behmke, Sarah Ellis, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Dani Marcus, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch, David Scott Purdy, Chuck Ragsdale and Ben Roseberry. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Jan. 30 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets: $45-$249. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.