A perfect example of how a million-dollar idea can sustain an entire show, Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is a two-act riff with an adequate amount of love and a deliciously hefty dose of murder. It is easy to see how it won the Tony for Best Musical of the Year in 2014.
The idea is that poor Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) discovers that he is eighth in line for the Earlship of D'ysquith. He realizes he will move from rags to riches once the other seven are dead, preferably as soon as possible. Once this dilemma is presented in the first song of the show "You're a D'Ysquith," all we have to do is sit back and watch people succumb in any number of hysterical ways.
The songs are clever in classic Broadway fashion. "I Don't Understand the Poor," "Better with a Man," "The Last One you'd Expect" and "I've Decided to Marry You" are special indeed. The leads (Massey, Mary Van Arsdel as Miss Shingle and Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella) are terrific singers who can also act.
But what sets "A Gentleman's Guide" apart is the brilliant staging. Using every trick in the book plus a bunch of new ones, the actor(s) fly merrily across the stage on the way to their collective demises. The show never lets go of its romp-ish nature and is stronger because of it.
We say "actor(s)" because John Rapson plays nine of them! He is ridiculously brilliant. Playing all the D'ysquith relations who are soon to die, he brings a larger-than-life sensibility to all his characters which take us back to the golden days of Theo Bikel and Rex Harrison. Except this man can sing! Even if you are not a classic Broadway fan, seeing John Rapson act out nine different roles is something you will not want to miss.
One word of warning: we were in Row X, far enough under the first balcony that the lyrics were difficult to hear. Add to this that many of the numbers are sung in an upper-crusty English-ish accent. We heard perhaps 50% of what was sung. But that 50% was memorable. We strongly suggest that if you're going to spend the money to see this show, spend even more and get great seats.
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" Four Stars. What keeps it from an even higher rating is also its strength: lighthearted escapism. Not that this is bad in these days of unspeakable tragedies, but when you go to the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco in 2015 you have to eventually come out of the theater. And when you do you are in a neighborhood as far from Asquith D'ysquith Junior as you can possibly get.