Had Edward Gorey ruled the English music hall, he might have ordered up a mordant trifle like “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” A giddy mix of murder, melody and mirth, the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical, which is based on the same Roy Horniman novel that inspired the less-frothy 1949 Alec Guinness film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” may be the sunniest dark comedy ever penned. Call it an amorality play.
Broadway newbies Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s saucy Edwardian operetta, whose national touring production makes its Boston debut at the Shubert Theatre (through Oct. 23), tells the story of a sympathetic British serial killer murdering his way to an aristocratic title. The killer, spurned by his snobby kin, has to knock off some eight people to make his way to Highhurst Castle; the show’s primary gimmick is that one actor plays all of the pretender’s victims.
On Broadway, the task of bowling over and playing dead fell to the gifted Jefferson Mays. Here, John Rapson, who is neither an Alec Guinness nor a Jefferson Mays, nevertheless attends to the job with clownish panache. Moreover, he is slyly abetted by flexible tenor Kevin Massey (who also appeared in the role on Broadway) as the nimble killer. And if their stylish game of cat and mouse won’t make you die laughing, it does stand a fair chance of charming you to death.
In this age of jukebox Broadway musicals complemented by the odd avant-garde entry, “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a bit of a throwback. It’s redolent of Gilbert and Sullivan and Oscar Wilde, if sillier than either. Freedman’s score is a sprightly mix of creamy melodies and patter songs, his and Lutvak’s lyrics pingy and effervescent (even if not every phoneme is distinguishable in this production). Moreover, director Darko Tresnjak, artistic head of Hartford Stage and once a frequent visitor to Huntington Theatre Company, more than deserves the Tony he won for straddling the line between period operetta and cartoon. On Alexander Dodge’s richly detailed toy-theater set, with its flounced red curtain rising and falling behind raised footlights in the shape of seashells, the show is as pretty as a picture but as precise as “Tom and Jerry.”
Following an irresistible opening ditty in which the audience is warned to flee the theater, our antihero Monty Navarro — the impoverished son of a handsome Castilian and the disinherited aristo who married beneath herself — sets out to write his memoirs/confession. Ironically, having slain his way to an earldom, he has been jailed for a murder he did not commit and awaits news of his fate. Meanwhile, his debonair if vengeful misadventures unfold, as he narrates, in flashback vignettes on Dodge’s adorably ornate stage-upon-a-stage.
Learning upon his beloved mother’s death that he is not only a Navarro but also a lordly D’Ysquith (pronounced Die-squith), Monty is rejected not only by his eccentric, worthless kin but also by his luscious childhood love, Sibella, who is resolved to marry for money. Whereupon Monty sets out to climb not only the fluted proscenium but also the ladder to an earldom, at the top rung of which totters the utterly unsympathetic current occupant, a blustery rotter in a red hunting coat singing to a fluffy auburn fox pelt.
But there are several equally buffoonish human obstacles to dispatch first, beginning with a reverend more interested in showing off his vertigo-inducing church tower than in intervening on Monty’s part with their hardhearted tribe. As with the victims to follow, one hardly feels more sympathy for the vicar, whom Rapson portrays as a lisping, reeling caricature, than for the ingredients shuttled by Sweeney Todd into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Indeed, the clergyman’s demise is not only a hoot but a scenic delight to behold, with Monty and the bucktoothed blowhard ascending to the church’s windswept buttresses as a Gothic-looking projected backdrop descends to meet them — after which the pushed prelate appears to tumble many stories down a spiral stairwell, his broken body blooming into a shimmering aureole of blood. Believe me, it’s less macabre than “Monty Python.”
And so it goes in a campy, episodic game of music-fueled assassination that flips into the Styx a philandering ice skater, a fey beekeeper and a philanthropic battle-ax, among others, to a clever score that ranges from the double-entendre-driven “Better with a Man” to the verbally dexterous, British Empire-skewering “Lady Hyacinth Abroad.” But that’s just the murder part; there is also, as advertised, love — which is where the plusher tunes come in. These include a dazzling trio number, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” sung by Monty, Sibella and Phoebe, the D’Ysquith to whom the peer-to-be plights his troth, virtuosically delivered in a frantic concealment scene straight out of “The School for Scandal.”
As Sibella and Phoebe, the respective Betty and Veronica of “A Gentleman’s Guide,” the vampy Kristen Beth Williams and sweeter Kristen Hahn look ravishingly statuesque in Linda Cho’s cinched, ruffled and bustled costumes and apply full, round sopranos to their songs. And if a few of the cameos proffered by the ensemble are broader than Lady Hyacinth’s bullish torso, Rapson colors his disparate caricatures between the lines. He also delivers his lyrics almost as quickly as he whips in and out of costume. (Kudos to the backstage crew for what seems like some miracle-working in that department). And as Monty, Massey not only sings effortlessly but wields an ironic eyeball as deftly as he does his various weapons of class destruction.