Any old movie buffs out there? Do you remember Kind Hearts and Coronets, with Alec Guinness? That’s an ancestor of the newest offering at the Fox, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. Except. After some legal wrangling, authors Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman went back even further, to the novel on which the film was based, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. No matter its family tree, this is a deeply delicious farce, with influences from Charles Dickens, the Addams Family (not that those two are unrelated), Harry Potter, Downton Abbey and French bedroom comedies (nor are those two).
Kevin Massey is Monty Navarro, a struggling clerk in a tattered neighborhood in 1909 London. At least that’s who he thinks he is. He’s just buried his widowed mother, when a stranger arrives to inform him he’s a scion of an aristocratic family. Mom had been thrown out when she married Dad, a Castilian musician.
The family, of course, wants nothing to do with him. His beloved, Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella, a beautiful young lady far above his present social status, may or may not believe his news about this, but they both mostly understand that marriage is out of the question. Even with this news, Monty is ninth in line – ninth! - for the title Earl of Highhurst, she reminds him. Therein, of course, is the lightbulb moment.
He tourss Highhurst Castle on one of the then-rare Visitors’ Days, only to be reprimanded by the current earl for fingering the suits of armor as the earl sings “I Don’t Understand the Poor”. The earl, and nearly all the other D’Ysquiths (the family name) he meets are played by John Rapson, who does a bangup job, as does Massey, who goes from naive to knowing. Several of Rapson’s roles are in drag, an old English music hall tradition, and that adds to the fun.
Monty manages to land a job at the family’s trading house in the City and does well, thanks to the senior partner, his cousin, who knows his identity. He meets another cousin, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), a Modern Woman, who warms to him. Since Sibella is marrying another, more socially acceptable man, he’s charmed – and he’s done in a couple of those ahead of him in line for the title already.
Monty prospers. The other heirs? Well, not so much. And yet it’s really very funny. Both Eller and Williams carry off the broad comedy without breaking an apparent sweat. Or perhaps, given the period, a “glow”. Overall, it’s a major romp.
The set, a stage-within-a-stage from the period, is from Alexander Dodge, including a very impressive HD screen that’s invaluable for the special effects. Linda Cho’s costumes are a delight, particularly a faux-Elizabethan ensemble on Kristen Mengelkoch as Lady Eugenia, the wife of the last remaining barrier to Monty’s assuming the title. (The dinner scene with Mengelkoch is a pleasure.)
Darko Tresnjak’s direction pulls everything into place and the pacing is perfect. But the whole production suffers immensely from muffled lyrics in a show where much relevant information is concealed in them. Is it the Fox sound system, which had last season seemed finally to have figured things out? Is it bad miking? Are they just not enunciating and working simultaneously? It’s so fuzzy that it’s hard for the eager but untrained ear to figure out.
And please, please, audience, pay attention to curtain times. The evening performances are starting at 7.30 p.m.. Matinee times are sometimes 1 p.m. and sometimes 2 p.m. It’ll be that way for Fun Home, the next show coming to the Fox. Beyond that, I admit I haven’t looked, but will share what I find out.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
through September 25, 2016
527 N. Grand