Spectacular A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER is a Must-See at PPAC
It's true that there are countless musicals from yesteryear that are, and always will be, timeless classics. On the other hand, there is also a constant flow of new material being created, which runs the gamut in terms of quality and success. Many of these new works do not succeed the way that the age-old classics do. Others, though, become almost instant classics in their own right as they find critical and popular acclaim. A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is that kind of show and the current touring production at Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) demonstrates just how fantastic this very young musical really is.
Just a baby by musical age standards, A Gentleman's Guide appeared on the scene three years ago, eventually winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2014. Little of the plot will be revealed here, but the "murder" of the title involves a young man named Montague Navarro, or Monty for short. As the play opens, he is in prison, writing and narrating his memoirs, telling us the story of how he arrived there. His tale begins just after his mother's death, when he finds out that he is actually a member of the wealthy and powerful royal D'Ysquith family, and well down the line of succession to becoming an Earl. The "love" of the title comes into play when Monty finds motivation for some sinister acts from the love of his life, Sibella, who will not even consider marrying him because he has no wealth or status.
If that sounds like the recipe for some sinister goings on, it is, but A Gentlman's Guide handles it all with a fun, light, witty and tounge-firmly-in-cheek attitude. The show features a book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, and while they may have included slight touches familiar to fans of Sweeney Todd or Jekyll and Hyde, there is no real horror, violence or gore here. Instead, the murders are played out in highly stylistic or almost silly ways, and that is meant as a good thing. The various ways that people are dispatched, and the way those moments are created on stage, are often laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Beyond just those moments, the show is filled with other wonderfully witty and hilarious lines and bits. There is so much going on that one can see this show multiple times and find something new and different to laugh or marvel at each time. In fact, seeing it multiple times is highly recommended. Unlike some recent musicals, which feature few, if any, really memorable songs, A Gentleman's Guide includes many hysterical and/or fantastic musical numbers. In the first act alone, "I Don't Know What I'd Do," "I Don't Understand the Poor," "Better With a Man," and "Inside Out" are all wonderful numbers featuring very funny or moving and memorable songs.
Speaking of moving, Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the whole thing moving along very nicely. An easy-breezy pace remains throughout and the action never gets slow or bogged down. He also makes each comic moment happen perfectly, never missing an opportunity for a well-timed laugh. A scene on a frozen lake, featuring the song "Poison in my Pocket," and one in a house where Monty must keep the two women in his life from discovering each other, while one sings "I've Decided to Marry You," are staged brilliantly in every way, just two examples of Tresnjak's directorial skills (with an assist from choreographer Peggy Hickey).
Also uniformly brilliant are every one of the actors and actresses assembled for this touring production. Kevin Massey plays Monty Navarro with an impressive amount of charm and charisma, making us love and root for him even though he's committing murders left and right. He's got a sinister twinkle in his eye but also an endearing, genuine and lovable quality that Massey brings perfectly to the character. John Rapson plays the entire D'Ysquith Family, all eight of them, and it's an impressive feat. It may take some audience members a while to realize that it's him playing the role each time, and even then they might not believe it at first. Rapson is another impressively talented, versatile and charismatic actor, and a great partner in crime, of sorts, along with Massey.
Sibella Hallward, the love of Monty's life, at least when the play starts, is played here by the radiant Kristen Beth Williams. She has a gorgeous singing voice to go along with all the gorgeous dresses that she gets to wear throughout the production. At the same time, her comic timing and delivery never fail, nor does her wonderful chemistry with Massey throughout their scenes together. The other woman in Monty's life, his fiancé and cousin Phoebe D'Ysquith, is played by the equally talented Kristen Hahn. Her operatic voice is stunning and brings the house down every time she utilizes her vocal talents. She and Williams are both a force to be reckoned with and work just as well separately as they do in a few scenes together, including the aforementioned "I've Decided to Marry You" number and the stunning duet towards the end of the show, "That Horrible Woman."
This nationally touring production features an ensemble that includes Jennifer Smith, Catherine Walker, Christopher Behmke, Sarah Ellis, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Dani Marcus, Kristen Mengelkoch, Ruth Pferdehirt, David Scott, Purdy, Chuck Ragsdale, and Ben Roseberry. Each of them deserves praise, there is not a weak link in the bunch. There is also not a weakness to be found in any of this show's technical elements.
Alexander Dodge's scenic design does something impossible and manages to make PPAC feel small and intimate. The use of a smaller stage-within-the-stage, of sorts, perfectly manages to bring the production down to a less overwhelming and easier to digest level. Every time the curtain rises on that smaller stage, the audience is treated to yet another stunning, perfectly appointed, wonderful new location or setting, none of which is ever repeated. It is some of the most fantastic theatrical scenery this audience member has ever seen. Linda Cho's costume designs are equally spectacular and gorgeous and Philip S. Rosenberg's lights do a perfect job setting the mood and scene without ever being a distraction. Special mention must also be made of Aaron Rhyne's incredible projections, which play a pivotal role in all of the settings and locations as well as the murderous moments. There have been many musicals recently which made terrible, awful use of projections, so often an unnecessary and garish distraction. These are the best projections and the best use of projections I have ever seen, and it's not even close.
A Gentleman's' Guide to Love & Murder is one of the best new musicals to appear on Broadway in recent years, and with good reason. During its short stay at PPAC, it is one you absolutely should not miss.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC), December 6 - 11, 2016. Tickets are on sale now and start at $36; all ticket prices include a $3 per ticket restoration charge and are subject to change without notice. Tickets are available at the PPAC Box Office (located at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence), by phone at (401) 421-ARTS (2787), and online at www.ppacri.org - Box Office Hours are Monday through Friday, 10A to 5P; Saturday, 10A to 2P, and two hours prior to curtain times.
Pictured (L to R): Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey and Kristen Hahn. Photo by Joan Marcus