by MIKE CHAIKEN
Theater houses loathe empty stages and empty seats.
So there is always the need for new “product” to fill the house for a bit.
This often means a lot of stage shows that are no-calorie filler… musicals based on popular movies, musicals based on grouping together a bunch of songs that were never meant to be together, and musicals that allow brand name actors, writers, or composers an opportunity to show their artistic chops.
But occasionally, there are musicals that fill the stage and put fannies in the seat that have a unique approach and, even if they feel familiar, still provide a unique voice.
This is the case of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” now playing at The Bushnell in Hartford through Sunday.
Robert L. Freedman’s story of a young man born in meager circumstances who learns upon his mother’s death that he actually is an heir to a royal household in Edwardian England sounds familiar. (Apparently, it was a 1907 novel.) The characters are familiar. The setting is familiar. But they also are all unique. The machinations of the plot also take turns that are out of character for an episode or “Downton Abbey” or an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
I won’t go too deep into the plot so I don’t give away the surprising progression of events. But I will say the story is engaging and idiosyncratic.
One of the keys to the show’s success are the characters. The primary characters Monty Navarro (played by Kevin Massey), Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams), Phoebe D’Ysquith (Kristen Hahn), and the entire D’Ysquith clan (played entirely by John Rapson) are well-rounded and are allowed to grow over the course of the tale. Yes, at the beginning, the characters theatrical archetypes but their depth and motivations are slowly revealed.
For this national tour of the show, which got its start at the Hartford Stage Co. in 2012, the key to the show’s success are the performers.
Rapson, in particular, is a comic de force in his role as every member of the D’Ysquith Family—male and female. Whether the character’s time is short or long on stage, Rapson had the audience doubled-over in laughter. It was exhausting watching his energetic, over-the-top comic performance.
Rapson’s roles were so over-the-top, the other performers had to deftly avoid clashing with the comic buffoonery. Essentially, the entire cast was the straightman to Rapson.
They managed this task quite well.
Massey had the challenge of being on stage from the opening moment to the curtain close. And he had to modulate his character against Rapson’s rampage. Massey acquitted himself superbly as he found the balance between ingénue wandering into the universe of the landed gentry and conniving social climber.
The women who played Sibella and Phoebe also did a fine job in their roles. Williams and Hahn did a great job in establishing their character’s archetypes and then breathing life dimension into their roles.
The music composed by Steven Lutvak also was refreshing. It was lovely and moving. But Lutvak avoided the “big moments” that most creators of musicals feel the need to trot out. The score for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” served the plot rather than fueled a musical moment fit for a clip on the Tonys.
Overall, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” was an original and entertaining slice of art on the stage of the Bushnell.
I give “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” three and a half stars out of four.
The show continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 7 p.m.
For tickets, go to Bushnell.org