‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’ Is Fiendishly Funny

Are you tired of the gruesome and the gauche, committing murder and mayhem without machine guns and machinery without the slightest concern for good manners? Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) has just the tonic for you, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” This fiendishly funny musical hit Broadway in 2013 and won four Tonys, including Best Musical. The production at the Ahmanson is without a misstep and murderously marvelous and continues until May 1.

The story takes place in London in 1909. Queen Victoria has died (1901). King Edward was a fashionable man and his reign was short. Edward VII would be dead in May of 1910. Women still didn’t have the vote (they’d have to wait until 1918 for a limited rights and 1928 for full rights to all women over the age of 21). World War I was still a few years away (1914).

The play is based on a novel 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” The book inspired the 1949 movie “King Hearts and Coronets.” (Horniman did serve in World War I.) The title of the movie was taken from a Tennyson poem “Lady Clara Vere de Vere, “King Hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.” What is most notable is the careful transition from the protagonist being half Jewish by his father in the original novel to half Italian in the 1949 movie to  half Spanish (Castilian) in the musical. According to an article in The Guardian, while some have found the novel to be anti-semitic, the man credited with rescuing this novel from obscurity, Simon Heffer, argues that it actually satirizes anti-semitism generally and the English attitudes toward the rise of Benjamin Disraeli specifically.  The books seems to have been a bit darker, including the murder of a baby.

The musical harks back to the movie which can be streamed on Amazon Video ($2.99).  The movie made Time magazine’s top 100 list as well as the BFI Top 100 British films.

In the musical, the audience if forewarned by a group of mourners, properly dressed in black.

For those of you of weaker constitution

For those of you who may be faint of heart
This is a tale of revenge and retribution
So if you’re smart
Before we start
You’d best depart
You’d best depart

An usher fainted in the aisle
A nun from Leicester lost her wits
You might avoid the first or second row

Blood may spill
And spines may chill
It’s ghastly – still
We thought you ought to know
It’s only just past eight
It’s not too late
For God’s sake!
For God’s sake
For God’s sake go!

On stage, there is a smaller stage on to which the cast steps on and off of. The back stage of this quaint stage is a screen on which different images are projected at times. We meet the Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, the ninth Earl of Highhurst, who is in prison on trial for murder. He tells the audience he is writing his true story, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

From there, we flashback to 1907. Monty’s mother has just passed away. In the movie, our murderous hero’s mother had raised him with the bitter knowledge of his supposed rightful rank and schooled him in his lineage and the succession line that prevents him from being a duke.  In the musical, he has been raised totally oblivious to his matrilineal heritage. It is only after his washerwoman mother has passed away that his mother’s old nursemaid, a Miss Marietta Shingle (Mary Van Arsdel) informs Monty (Kevin Massey) that he is a member of the D’Ysquith family. His mother Isobel was disinherited after marrying a Spanish musician. Monty is ninth in line for the earldom of Highhurst.  Encouraged by Shingle, Monty writes a letter to Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. (John Rapson) who is the head of the family banking house and inquires for a position. One hilarious conceit that the musical holds over from the movie is that all the D’Ysquith members in the way of our lad’s lordly ambitions are played by the same actor.

His new found though distant link to aristocracy and wealth gives Monty hope. He’s been in love with the beautiful Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams), but she is a high-maintenance type of girl with an eye on another guy with property. While she accepts Monty’s dubious story, she notes that he’s eight people away from being a lord.

Monty receives a reply from Asquith D’Ysquith Junior (John Rapson) who warns him against contacting the family again and using the family name, completely denying the existence of Isobel. Monty isn’t quite ready to let this go and take a tour of Highhurst on visitors day. The spirits take over the portraits and warn Monty away. He meets the current Earl (also Rapson) who expresses his distaste and incomprehension of the common folk (“I Don’t Understand the Poor”).

Monty then decides to make an appeal to one of the weaker links in the line up: Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. At the ancestral family church, the dotty old man gives Monty a tour and remembers Isobel, but refuses to get involved in family matters and intercede on Monty’s behalf.  When the tipsy reverend loses his balance on the bell tower, Monty lets the wind and the reverend’s old age and inebriation cause the man’s demise. He simply refuses to give a helping hand.

Temptation leads Monty further astray when he observes the boorish arrogant Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr with his mistress. Monty follows them on their secret rendezvous at a winter resort and although he intends to poison the man (“Poison in My Pocket”), he settles instead for an ice skating accident. In the movie, this death takes place during a relaxing retreat on the river.

Back in London, Monty receives a letter from the grief-stricken Asquith D’Ysquith who apologizes for his son’s rude letter and offers Monty a job. With a comfortable salary, Monty finds that Sibella still prefers the other man and is engaged to him.

In his next cousinly encounter, Monty meets Henry D’Ysquith, a man married but really more interested being with the boys. Through Henry, Monty meets Henry’s sister Phoebe and decides that she’d be the perfect wife for him since he can’t have Sibella and Phoebe does not stand in the way of his succession to becoming an earl. When Henry suffers to a lavender-scented death, Monty is there to console Phoebe.

While Phoebe is a good counterpoint to Sibella, the most delightful innovation in this retelling of the story is the unmarried Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith. Like Monty, she is a social climber, but she desperately needs a cause to improve her social position.

With her Monty is helpful in the most solicitously devious ways. Monty sings, “If I may your Ladyship, one hears about such terrible poverty in Egypt these days.”

Hyacinth replies, “Egypt. Land of the pharaohs and of Moses the Israelite.
Home to the great pyramids and the sphinx. That’s it! We’ll populate an orphanage in Cairo, with foundlings from the reeds along the Nile. To watch a creature grow, to swaddle it and know the joy of its pathetic little smile.”

As she and her entourage head off to Egypt, Monty confides, “And off she went, what I failed to tell her was that a violent uprising against the empire was imminent and no British citizen was considered safe, so you can imagine my surprise when Lady Hyacinth returned to London quite unharmed.”

Hyacinth is something like that cat who always comes back.  Monty then suggests, “You’ve heard of course of the untouchables in India.”

Hyacinth takes he advice, “India. Land of Hindus and Muslims, of tamarind and saffron. Exotic and unknowable. That’s it! We’ll find ourselves some lepers in the Punjab. The hopeless and the wretched and the cursed. Forgotten and Unblessed”

Monty then tells the audience, what important information he failed to provide the blustery Hyacinth with. Hyacinth doesn’t quite have nine lives, but close.

As Monty progresses up the line of succession, his murders get bloodier although even a beheading is handled by director Darko Tresnjak in a  darkly funny manner. There’s not a single step in Peggy Hickey’s choreography that detracts from the delightfully mannered murders or the questionable love triangle that forms between Monty and his two loves: Phoebe and Sibella which comes to a door-slamming climax when Phoebe decides to marry Monty.

Eventually our greek chorus of mourners express both irritation and anxiety about the frequent funerals befalling the D’Ysquiths (“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?”).  Is it a curse? Or is it something suspicious?  Of course, as Monty is in prison, he does get charged with murder, and there’s a bit of mystery since in the musical as well as the movie, Monty is charged with a murder he didn’t commit.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” continues at the Ahmanson until May 1. The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles (135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012). To buy tickets  call 213.972.4444 or  visit  www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or go to the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Ticket prices start at $25.

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