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BWW Review: As Much 'Skillduggery' as 'Skullduggery' in A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER at the Orpheum

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER must have been a "labor of love" for Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the book: After all, it is derived from the brilliant 1949 British comedy classic KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which benefited immeasurably by performances by Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, and -- most especially -- the brilliant Alec Guinness, whose impersonation of all the victims was a tour de force. Yet, A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, with wickedly droll music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, is a deliciously poisonous bon bon all its own. It's as if Joseph Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE had somehow melded with Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, and somewhere "up there" (or "down there," whatever the case may be) writers like Roald Dahl and directors like Alfred Hitchcock must be smiling at the production currently delighting audiences at the Orpheum.

The plot is quite simple, really: Poor "Monty Navarro" has just discovered that his late, impoverished mother was really a pariah of the esteemed D'Ysquith family (she had made the mistake of marrying an untitled Castilian). To complicate matters, the socially conscious object of his desire, the preening "Sibella," feels that he is too far beneath her station to qualify as a spouse. In order to achieve his goal, the outcast Monty must do something about the eight relatives who stand between him and a title; and for the most part, they're a truly awful lot, fully deserving of any fate that befalls them -- a windbag of a cleric, a bullyish health fanatic, a self-righteous reformer. The first act focuses on the sly Monty's encounters with his relatives and his Richard III-like attempts to eliminate them; the second, on his arrest (deserved?) and his dilemma of having to choose between Sybella (now married) and distant cousin Phoebe, a bookish, "decent" alternative.

All of this is amusingly, swiftly executed (no pun intended); in fact, the scenic design by Alexander Dodge is one of the most impressive I've seen in some time. With its Victorian footlights and those clever backdrops for the various acts of mayhem (church buildings, snow-capped peaks, etc.), A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE is wonderfully and imaginatively "illustrated." Director Darko Tresnjak knows how to balance his humor with horror, and the musical proceeds skillfully and swiftly.

As "Monty," Kevin Massey could have walked over from an Oscar Wilde play; he manages to create a basically decent young man (there's one victim in particular for whom he feels warmth and gratitude) whom we don't want to see caught (and his light tenor voice is a pleasure). The ladies reminded me of "Gwendolen" and "Cecily" in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; Kristen Beth Williams' statuesque "Sybella" is an alluring minx, while Adrienne Eller's subdued-but-impassioned "Phoebe" is a believable alternative -- a difficult decision for poor Monty, indeed. In the famous Alec Guinness role, versatile John Rapson is the unarguable treat here: With rapid costume changes (courtesy of Linda Cho), he creates a succession of characters -- some male, some female, one in-between; and he does so with real comedic skill.

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER works on all levels. Even if those delicious musical numbers were eliminated, the story and characters themselves are entertaining enough (not always the case with some of the old "warhorse" musicals) to bring an audience to its feet. However, Steven Lutvak's songs are so funny and sharp, you feel as if you're missing something if you don't pay attention. This pleasantly poisonous Valentine plays through February 14. Photo courtesy of the Orpheum.


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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)