In the early 1960’s Frank Loesser classic How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (H2$), the main character, J. Pierpont Finch, works his way to the top of the company by ruthlessly eliminating through unsuspecting tricks those above him on the food chain. It ends on a note of “what’s next?”, after someone suggested that the President better watch out.
Now, transport yourself back to London in 1909. In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (GGLAM) (FB), currently at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), we have a similar story: Monty Navarro, an outcast cousin of the wealthy and famous D’Ysquith family, discovers that there are 8 people in the line of succession between him and the position of Earl of Highhurst. He, too, learned that there is a way to succeed without really trying to get to the top: through love and murder. As Monty murders… or perhaps doesn’t murder… his way to the top, the audience is taken for a rollicking and extremely funny ride.
The notes to the show note the similarity of the plot to Kind Hearts and Cornets, the 1949 film starring Alec Guiness, where he played eight different characters in a wealthy family being murdered by the ninth man in line for the fortune. It notes that both Kind Hearts and GGLAM are both based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. Yet in writing this up the parallels between GGLAM and H2$ are quite striking: a young ambitious man working his way to the top while deftly sabotaging, directly or indirectly, those in the path above him to clear the way. Both, at times, exhibit their era’s stereotypical attitudes that are a little bit off today. Both are extremely funny. Both won Tony awards.
What GGLAM adds to the mix that H2$ does not have, however, is a playful conceit drawn from Kind Hearts: all the family members being killed are portrayed by the same actor. This quick change adds to the fun, because unlike film where there is time to change hair and makeup, stage transitions provide extremely little time. This means the actor portraying the family-to-die must be very versatile and creative.
What are the basics of the story, which was adapted from the aforementioned novel by Robert L. Freedman (FB) (Book and Lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (FB) (Music and Lyrics)? Monty Navarro, who is at the bottom of the social rungs living in poverty, is informed just after his mother’s death that he is a disinherited cousin of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family. His branch was cut off after his mother married a Castilian for love, instead of marrying for position or power. Monty is informed that there are eight D’Ysquiths ahead of him in the line of succession. Monty resolves that he will regain his rightful place in the family. After being scorned on his initial approaches, he meets with the only D’Ysquith that will talk to him: the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. After a dilemma similar to that faced by Seymour Krelborn with the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors results in the death of the Reverend, Monty resolves that he will become the Ninth Earl of Highhurst. How? Well, this is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, isn’t it? All that stands in front of Monty are Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Yssquith Pumphrey, Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., and Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith.
So where is the Love in the title? That comes from Sibella, the love interest of Monty. However, she does want to marry for wealth and position, which at the start of the story, Monty doesn’t have. Instead, she marries the boring Lord Hallward and keeps on with Monty on the side … growing more interested in him as he moves his way to the top. Complicating matters, however, arise when Henry D’Ysquith passes. Henry is living with Phoebe D’Ysquith, and quickly, Phoebe falls in love with Monty. She proposes, he accepts, and now you have the complicating love factor of the story.
I won’t go into the closing details of the story; you can get that from the Wikipedia synopsis if you don’t mind the spoilers. Suffice it to say that the path from the first to the last, with the complications of the two women, are hilarious. This is the type of humorous farce that last week’s Bach at Leipzig needed to be, but wasn’t. Under the direction of Darko Tresnjak (FB), the silly and crazy energy required is maintained from the opening song until after the curtain call. Tresnjak brought out a playfulness in his acting team that was broadcast to the audience and was infectious.
The acting team was extremely strong. In the lead positions were John Rapson (FB) as all the members of the D’Ysquith family, and Kevin Massey (FB) as Monty D’Ysquith Navarro. I never saw the original cast member, Jefferson Mays in the role, so I cannot compare. From my vantage, Rapson was astounding — being loads of different characters in different costumes all with different comic mannerisms. He was just a hoot to watch. It seems that everything he did — and he was having fun doing it — was with the express goal of “the funny”. It worked. It is difficult to say which of his many characters was the most fun… it was either Henry or Lord Adalbert in his interactions with his wife. Massey’s Navarro was able to keep up with him; a 1909 Pierpont Finch plotting and scheming and occasionally second-guessing himself in a very funny way. Massey’s songs were less aimed at the funny, and he had a lovely voice with which to carry them off.
The love interests were portrayed by Kristen Beth Williams (FB) as Sibella Hallward and Adrienne Eller (FB) as Phoebe D’Ysquith. Both had lovely singing voices, both were sexy, and both had great comic chops. This was demonstrated in top form in the Act II number “I’ve Decided to Marry You”. I enjoyed watching them both, but I must admit I was very taken by Eller’s performance (it is just so cute). Fun, fun to watch. Hint: If you sit close enough (or bring binoculars), watch their facial expressions throughout the show (as well as those of the other D’Ysquiths). These actors were really into their roles.
Almost all of the other roles, with the exception of Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel (FB)), the lifelong friend of Monty’s mother who informs him of his status, are played by the members of the ensemble switching into named characters. All of these folks were very strong. Again, it was fun watch their faces and movements — it is clear they are having loads of fun doing this show and that energy and fun comes is projected out to the audience. I do want to highlight Kristen Megelkoch (FB), who was spectacular as Lady Eugenia — her comic interaction with Rapson’s Lord Adalbert was just hilarious. The ensemble (and swings, because I have no idea whether any of those ninjas were on stage) were: Christopher Behmke (FB) (Magistrate, Guard, Ensemble), Sarah Ellis (FB) (Swing/Dance Captain), Matt Leisy (FB) (Tom Copley, Ensemble), Megan Loomis (FB) (Tour Guide, Ensemble), Dani Marcus (FB) (Swing), Lesley McKinnell (FB) (Miss Barley, Ensemble), Kristen Megelkoch (FB) (Lady Eugenia, Ensemble), David Scott Purdy (FB) (Swing/Fight Captain), Chuck Ragsdale (FB) (Swing), and Ben Roseberry (FB) (Chief Inspector Pinckney, Ensemble).
As they often point out at the soon to be dark Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), live musicals are nothing without live music (a lesson that the Theater League in Thousand Oaks evidently didn’t learn). GGLAM had a 13 person orchestra (when do they change from a band to an orchestra?) under the music direction of Lawrence Goldberg. The orchestra gave a very nice sound and did not overpower the actors. The orchestra consisted of Albin Konopka (FB) (Associate Music Director / Piano), Eric Kang (Piano / Librarian), Jonathan Davis (Oboe / English Horn), Larry Hughes (Clarinet), Andrew Klein (Bassoon), Joe Meyer (French Horn), Robert Schaer (Trumpet), Jen Choi Fischer (Violin 1), Marisa Kuney (Violin 2), Diane Gilbert (Viola), David Mergin (Cello), Ken Wild (Bass), and Cliff Hulling (Percussion). The music contractor was Seymour Red Press / Robert Payne. Paul Staroba was the music supervisor. Orchestrations were by Jonathan Tunick.
The dances in GGLAM make clever use of the space, and are not the typical production numbers (kick kick step turn). Kudos to Peggy Hickey (FB) for the choreography. As dance captain, Sarah Ellis (FB) got the un-envious job of maintaining that choreography on the road.
Turning to the production and creative side: Alexander Dodge‘s scenic design for the tour provides a limited working stage within a stage that keeps the action narrowly focused and emphasizes the comic and theatrical nature of the story being told. This is complemented by the projection design of Aaron Rhyne (FB), which permits the working stage to be many locations through back projection of a scenic flat, often with animation. Both combined with the lighting of Philip S. Rosenberg to provide an effective package of sight and mood. [ETA: An aside on the lighting: I noticed much fewer lights for this show than usual, as it appears the Ahmanson has gone to the more versatile LED lighting systems.] As for sound, the sound design of Dan Moses Schreier was one of the clearest I’ve heard for a tour in ages. Of course, the creativity didn’t stop with the stage, lights, and sounds. They were complemented by the remarkable costumes of Linda Cho, the hair and wig design of Charles G. LaPointe, and the make-up of Brian Strumwasser. As an example of how these were remarkable, consider that John Rapson had to instantly change not only costumes, but wigs and makeup in seconds during transitions, and it was flawless.
The remaining members of the production team were: Dianne Adams McDowell (Vocal Arranger), Binder Casting (Casting), Tripp Phillips (Production Supervisor / Assistant Director), Daniel S. Rosokoff (Production Stage Manager), Eric H. Mayer (Stage Manager), Sarah Helgesen (Assistant Stage Manager). Neuro Tour provided physical therapy. There were loads and loads of producers. This was an AEA tour.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through May 1, 2016. Tickets are available through the CTG Box Office. Discount tickets may be available through the CTG Hottix program, and Goldstar. It is well worth it — a well done very funny show.
* 🎭 🎭 🎭 *
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I had been subscribing at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and REP East (FB): but all have gone or are going dark., I just added a subscription to the Hollywood Pantages (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: This afternoon saw us in Beverly Hills for A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB) — this will be written up in the next day or two. April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). We have a mid-week concert of the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 7, followed by “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 10. The next weekend’s theatre is on Thursday, because the weekend brings our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). The Thursday show is Stella’s Last J-Date at the Whitefire Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend in April is is Pesach, but the Indie Chi Productions dark comedy Dinner at Home Between Deaths at the Odyssey Theatre (FB) sounded so interesting I’ve booked Sunday tickets. The last weekend of April has a hold date for The Boy from Oz at the Celebration Theatre (FB) (although we may end up seeing the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB) in the Bay Area instead (support their kickstarter), meaning I have a weekend to program!). May starts with a hold date for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). We then run off to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we may squeeze in a show: the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB) is doing The Boy from Oz, but otherwise the pickings and concerts are bare. May 21 has a hold for Los Angeles: Then and Now, a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has holds for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB). As for June? It’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve started to hold dates for the following shows: All Aboard the Marriage Hearse ✨ All The Best Killers are Librarians ✨ Qaddafi’s Cook — Living in Hell, Cooking for the Devil ✨ Squeeze My Cans ✨Tell Me On A Sunday ✨ Toxic Avenger: The Musical ✨ Vintage Box ✨ Einstein ✨Titus Andronicus Jr. ✨The Old Woman ✨Sweet Love Adieu ✨ My Big Fat Blond Musical✨. We thought about Love The Body Positive, but then again… no. Can’t be scaring people. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.