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"A Gentleman's Guide..." is bloody good fun at the Fisher
DETROIT -- As the second act of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" begins, the chorus intones that, "we bring nothing into this world, and sure we take nothing way."
Not so this cheerfully grisly musical.
It began its 13-day Fisher Theatre run bringing in the high expectations that come with being a Tony Award winner -- four, including Best Musical. And after the final bows, and one final (implied) murder, it let the audience take away a thoroughly unique and clever, if occasionally muddled, theatrical experience.
The premise is a chop off the ol' "Sweeney Todd." Following the death of his mother, Montague "Monty" Navarro (Kevin Massey), a London man of means so modest he has no hopes of marrying his beloved Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), learns he's actually an heir of the aristocratic D'ysquith family. His initial outreach spurned, Monty decides to infiltrate and after letting the addled Rev. Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith fall to his death from a bell tower, decides to systematically eliminate all of the other cousins who stand between him and Earl status.
Monty winds up killing six and getting help, both natural and external, with two others. Riding shotgun is a love triangle with Sibella and his sweet and empathetic cousin Phoebe D'Ysquith (Kristen Hahn), and an arrest for one of the murders he DIDN'T commit, putting Monty in a jail cell where he spends long night writing memoirs that provide the musical's narration.
The humor is broad and physical, and the modestly sized cast of 11 proved up to its demands while the show's deft, compact production made smart use of video projections -- from bees chasing one victim to the bell tower that takes the Reverend -- enhanced every plot point. The show largely belongs to John Rapson, the Oakland County native and graduate of Stoney Creek High School and the University of Michigan who plays the eight D'Ysquith cousins who meet their demise (and a ninth, late-show arrival, who leaves us guessing). Rapson is a gifted, limber comedian who projects nuances with both his body and his elastic face as he glides through the character transitions, putting real life into each of their deaths.
None of that is at the expense of his castmates, however. Massey is a commanding presence who plays Monty as more shrewd than evil, and never as ruthless as his deeds would suggest. His chemistry with Williams and Hahn as Sibella and Phoebe feels authentic, and the show's best moment is "I've Decided To Marry You," an intricate second-act slapstick that could go on twice as long and still be a riot.
"A Gentleman's Guide..." only came up short sonically on opening night; An odd balance for the ensemble vocal numbers and between the voices and orchestras buried many of the voices in the mix, and some key plot advancements with them -- particularly during the transitional "That Horrible Woman." Given the cast's already challenging British accents, it made the fast-paced story a bit harder to follow.
But just a bit. Strong performances ultimately make what could be a convoluted story a great deal of fun, and insured that this "Murder" slayed the audience with whimsy and wit.
"A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder"
Through Oct. 16.
The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd. Detroit.
Tickets are $29-$205.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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