Thursday, March 31, 2016

NATIONAL TOUR OF "A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER’" SLAYS THEM AT THE AHMANSON


Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro 
and Adrienne Elleras Phoebe D'Ysquith in a scene from 
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder." Photo by Joan Marcus

Music may be the food of love per the Bard, who urges us to play on. However, it’s devilishly difficult when everyone is laughing and having a great time to think about squaring the circle concerning the murderous aspects in the title of the brilliant and entertaining musical comedy/farce "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" now on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

It must be the perverse nature of human beings that we claim to revile the darker aspects of our nature, yet revel in its powerful and seductive attractions. Many of us are drawn to chocolate in all its addictive forms, and how can one explain the hypnotic fascination of watching the aftermath of a train wreck or a roadside traffic accident? We are a strange species indeed.

Regardless of your quirk, one can’t help but enjoy the sparkling and inventive onstage musical comedy machinations of "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder" in one of the Ahmanson’s slickest and audience-pleasing productions this season.

The multiple Tony-winning production, written by librettist and lyricist Robert L. Freedman with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, is based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal", which in turn became the inspiration for the 1949 British Ealing Studios movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets", making Alec Guinness an international movie star in the process.

John Rapson (c) and the Ensemble of
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Ahmanson stage audience buzzed with anticipation and excitement prior to curtain up on opening night as many celeb’s and stars could be seen chatting in the audience. I was seated next to an original Broadway cast member and star performer Jane Carr. Seated next her was the legendary Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director Emeritus of Center Theatre Group. Davidson’s thirty-eight year stewardship and personal vision helped make The Mark Taper Forum, The Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theatres become ‘must attend’ venues over the years, thus cementing Los Angeles’ reputation as a theatre town as well as a movie and TV-oriented city.

The story of our anti-hero Monty Navarro (after all, the character becomes a serial killer), sensationally played by Kevin Massey, takes place in 1907 Edwardian London. The plot is driven partly by revenge for past family slights, partly by the ambition of young Navarro - a man with no prospects of bettering his life - who learns that he is a disinherited member of one of England’s leading aristocratic families – the D’Ysquith’s. It’s a family of eight relatives, all of whom are in the line of succession to become the Earl of Highurst, and all are played by the incredibly talented John Rapson, in a tour-de-force turn.

Kristen Beth Williams and Kevin Massey
in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
Complicating Navarro’s life is his hormone-driven infatuation with the sexy Sibella Hallward, seductively played and sung by Kristen Beth Williams. Sibella has plans other than to be involved in an affair with a penniless store clerk; that is until Monty informs her of his recent news. Suddenly his prospects and appeal have greatly improved in her eyes.

Monty is now faced with the reality of coming up with a plan to remove all eight impediments standing in his way in order to become the Ninth Earl of Highurst without drawing suspicion to himself. How he goes about the competition removal process is the hilarious stuff of invention and execution (no pun intended) performed by an inspired cast of actor/singers who act and perform in true ensemble fashion.

Adrienne Eller and Kevin Massey in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
Halfway through his quest, Monty meets his cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith, (a lovely Adriennne Eller who boasts a set of soaring soprano pipes) a sweet young lady who becomes smitten with him. Fortunately for her, Phoebe is not on Monty’s removal list. But she has him on her husband-to-be list. And the plot get thicker… but no spoiler alerts here.

The musical features nineteen songs and musical numbers that crackle with energy and precision. Under the baton of musical director Lawrence Goldberg, the show has the look and feel of a precision synchronized swim team that at times is breathtaking in its execution. Visually it’s a lush and stunning-looking production that has the audience applauding after every scene break, which by the way, is richly deserved.

John Rapson as Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
All of the above mentioned comedy/farce story components and stage business is the province of the production’s gifted and inventive director Darko Tresnjak. His creative fingerprints are all over this splendid production. This is the second production of the show directed by Tresnjak that I’ve seen and each time he imbues the production with a fresh and inventive quality that has become his hallmark.

When he was the artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (2004 -2009), audiences eagerly looked forward to plays that were directed by him knowing full well that theatrical surprises were just a scene ahead.

The technical arsenal available to directors at the Ahmanson is limitless. The creative technical team led by Tresnjak has scenic design wizard Alexander Dodge deliver a magnificent set along with design projections and special effects galore that are sprinkled throughout the production. Keep your eyes on the doorway connecting two rooms in Act 2…priceless!

The costumes designed by Linda Cho are stunning, colorful, and functional, as they must be for this physically and athletically performed production. Making sure we get to see every nuanced moment on stage falls to Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenberg who doesn’t disappoint. Choreography is by Peggy Hickey.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” performs at the Ahmanson Theatre, and runs through May 1, 2016.