Musical comedies about serial killers don't come around often; after all, it’s been almost 40 years since the murderous musical barber, Sweeney Todd, first hit the stage. So it's more than noteworthy that two homicidal funny-bone song-and-dance numbers have been programmed back to back on Houston stages. Even more notable is that both are courtesy of the same company, Theatre Under the Stars, and its edgier subsidiary, TUTS Underground.
Heathers, the morbid and deliciously politically incorrect tale of teens behaving badly, is finishing its run at TUTS Underground. Now steps in the 2014 Tony winner for Best Musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, making its national touring pit stop at the Hobby Center courtesy of TUTS.
I’ve no idea what, if anything, the folks at TUTS are trying to say to us with this funnily fatal double bill. Perhaps it's an attempt to prove that whether you like your musical comedies dark or fizzy, murder, if done with humorous panache, is a subject that can slay audiences.
When it comes to Gentleman’s Guide (book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak), it’s unquestionably the fizzy kind of murder on tap. Actually, impish might be the better descriptor since never before have so many homicides been committed with such playfully jaunty naughtiness.
Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which was also the source for the 1949 British movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness, Gentleman’s Guide introduces us to Monty Navarro as he writes his memoirs in an Edwardian-era jail while awaiting the verdict in his murder trial. In voice-over mixed with predominantly flashback mode, Monty, a decidedly friendly fellow, fills us in on the events leading to his incarceration.
Following the death of his mother, the orphaned Monty (a charming Kevin Massey) learns that he is actually of noble lineage. After marrying Monty’s dad for love in spite of his commoner standing, Monty’s mom was excommunicated and erased from her aristocratic family, the D’Ysquith (pronounced die-squith) clan. Not only does he learn of his hoity-toity family tree, but Monty also is made aware that as a male D’Ysquith, he is eighth in line to the title of Earl of Highhurst.
But this extraordinary tidbit does little to impress Monty’s love/lust obsession, Sibella (played with wonderful narcissism and vanity by Kristen Beth Williams), who is determined to marry a man of wealth and position. So, what’s a boy to do? Why, knock off all eight of his relatives and claim the earlship for himself, of course. Thus sets off the two-act show, at times splendidly clever and tunefully captivating yet also in moments bogging down with too much plot (do there need to be eight relatives to murder?) and musical repetition.
While it’s not terribly offside to say that the plot isn’t the focal point in a musical, it’s another thing to say that the music isn’t really either. Yes, Gentleman’s Guide satisfies perfectly well in the tunes department with songs very reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan (think dialogue and song in pleasing mishmash and staccato lyrics sung to hoppy music). You can also hear nods to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in many of the more murderous numbers. Perhaps the best mashup of the two genres comes in the delightfully wordy and darkly humored “I Have Poison in my Pocket,” which finds Monty plotting his next murder while his victims sing a more lustful tune. But the real glee of this show lands squarely in the lap of the designers and the actors who make the silliness work.
The first thing that comes to mind in watching this show is how magnificent it looks. Set mainly in a gilded Greco-Roman picture box frame at the center of the stage, the action is limited to the small area designer Alexander Dodge allows. But deficit of space is not an issue when you have projection designer Aaron Rhyne on hand to provide gorgeous vistas of space, place and wondrous depth to each scene.
As Monty meets and ingeniously murders each of the eight uppity D’Ysquiths using a dizzying array of comic methods, Rhyne transforms the framed stage remarkably into various locales. A church tower where Monty allows Reverend D’Ysquith to fall to his death becomes a spinning spiral staircase of doom. A snow-covered, mountainous skating pond visually cracks, swallowing Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. thanks to Monty’s icebreaking handiwork. A breathtaking country garden becomes a swarm of bees attacking Henry D’Ysquith courtesy of Monty’s nefarious ways. And it’s not just the murder scenes that benefit from the projections. Every setting, whether of Earl’s castle or the view out the window of Sibella’s flat, gets animated by breathtaking technicolor images that most impressively perfectly enhance what is meant to feel like a late-1800s design sensibility. Never mind who Monty is going to meet and kill next or what crazy scheme he’ll use to do the deed; we’re anxious to see what sumptuous new projection and scenic design will be offered up as each D’Ysquith lands on the chopping block.
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Which brings us to the D’Ysquiths. The central joke of the show, and the one that was most talked about when the musical first gained popularity, is that all eight members of the D’Ysquith clan targeted for murder are played by one actor, in this case John Rapson. Young, old, male, female and of varying intellects, the eight characters are supposed to be a comic tour de force for the actor playing the roles. For the most part, Rapson lives up to the task. His portrayal of Lady Hyacinth, a D’Ysquith with a veddy veddy British accent who's in need of a charity to back, lands strongly, as do his turns as a beefed-up major, an effete Henry and the lustful Asquith Jr. But Rapson fails to find comic footing with the Earl, whose number, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” falls disappointingly flat.
Thankfully, however, the rest of the cast is splendid and in many ways outshines Rapson and his numerous D’Ysquiths, especially in Act 2 when the love part of the story kicks in. While on his gentlemanly murderous rampage, Monty meets Phoebe D’Ysquith (played with fussy sweetness by Adrienne Eller), a straitlaced, privileged but kind woman who poses no threat to his ambition. Despite his lust for Sibella, Monty can’t help admiring Phoebe to the point of love. Sibella, for her part, has come to rue her decision to toss Monty over for a husband she can’t stand, and so remains in his life as his jealous mistress. The love triangle that ensues lands Monty in a precarious position that comes to a hilarious head in the showstopping number “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” choreographed brilliantly with physical comedy and clever farce and featuring terrific performances by all three lovers. It turns out that given the choice between love and murder, it’s the love part that we laugh at the most.
By the time we come full circle back to Monty in his jail cell, no one could argue that we hadn’t gotten our money’s worth. Namely eight murders, lust pitted against love and a trove of wildly eccentric D’Ysquiths in a well-oiled whirlwind production with some of the most gloriously imaginative set and projection design we could hope for. Could we have done with a little less? Sure. In an effort to be clever, Freedman and Lutvak swell too many of their scenes with unnecessary choruses and plot points, dulling the comic energy in places. So while I’ll happily call this a must-see show, I for one can’t imagine running out to sit through it again anytime soon. I guess in the case of love and murder, first time’s the charm.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through May 15 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $45.75-$138.50.