Why are all the D’Ysquiths dying?
Only the audience and Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) are privy to that curious mystery in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” The Tony Award-winning musical that originated at Hartford Stage is playing now at The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts through Sunday.
Monty is one of the few characters with a hand in multiple deaths since serial killer Dexter who is a likable protagonist we are rooting for despite his nefarious actions. “Dexter” is a dark drama with occasional humor, whereas “Gentleman’s Guide” is very comical in the way it presents the deaths of the wealthy and elitist D’Ysquiths. Though you could argue that Monty didn’t directly kill anyone and rather orchestrated the circumstances that led to their demise. The audience was laughing hysterically at every murder.
In a way, Monty is like Ponty in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” both start off poor with low status and trying to fast-track their way to the top. Instead of being a window washer trying to rise in the ranks of a major corporation without experience, Monty is trying to rise in the ranks within his estranged family to gain status and wealth from his lower position to society and speed up the process by picking off the upper class D’Ysquiths in line to be earl one by one so that he can become earl himself. Monty has the added motivation of revenge for his mother, who was cast out of the family for marrying his Castilian father for love and not wealth, and love to win over the vain and money-conscious beauty, Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams).
Sibella claims she loves Monty, but won’t marry him because he’s not rich. She says she doesn’t know what she would do without him, but she marries a wealthy man she doesn’t love. It isn’t until Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), a friend of Monty’s mother, reveals he is an heir to the D’Ysquith family and he proves it to her and rises in wealth and status that she truly grows attracted to him. Monty asks her if it ever occurred to her to marry for love, yet he also is shallow in his quest for wealth to be the man Sibella wants and his obsession with Sibella despite how she doesn’t love him for him. He loses his grasp on morality as the play goes on, yet he doesn’t lose his charisma. Even when he becomes involved in a love triangle with Sibella and his D’Ysquith cousin, Phoebe (Kristen Hahn).
Everything comes to a head with the final murder that lands Monty in prison, where he confesses to his hand in the deaths in a diary titled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Irony plays a major role in the comedy of the musical, as that’s one of the few murders he didn’t commit. If not him, then who? And will his diary confession give him away?
This was my second time seeing the musical, the first being on Broadway when I missed the first 10 minutes, so I understood the intricacies of the plot much better. While the first song, “A Warning to the Audience,” was beautifully sung, I could have taken or left and didn’t feel like I missed much the first time because it was hard to hear what they were saying and it didn’t really add much to the plot. However, it did set the tone for a very light-hearted musical about murdering to inherit the family money.
The vocals were stunning with operatic flourish, though the power of the notes sometimes compromised the diction and ability for the audience to understand the words. So, some of the jokes were lost. But the embellished action and expressions in the story told on a stage-like upstage set helped us grasp what was happening when the lyrics were lost. The effects for the murders from a priest falling down a spiral staircase projected on a screen to animated bees chasing a flamboyant bee keeper were also key in delivering humor.
Massey, Williams and Hahn were particularly impressive in the clear tone and power of their voices, as well as John Rapson who had the particular challenge of playing nine characters – most of the D’Ysquiths, women included.
Rapson, who was significantly younger than Connecticut actor who played the parts on Broadway, successfully tackled characters of different ages and genders that are snobby and kind, funny and serious and educated and fickle. His versatility and familiar face really drove the comedy and intrigue. He has a farcical, flamboyant and energetic way of playing all the characters.
We saw a slightly meeker Monty in Massey that made him delicate and likable and more on the fringe as the puppet master designing the circumstances of the D’Ysquith’s deaths from the shadows. The urgency in his character’s desire for physicality and passion in his love for the dismissive Sibella was a vehicle for comedy as his hands and limbs emphatically trembled when he got to kiss her.
The musical doesn’t have many catchy songs that will get stuck in your head like a “Wicked” or “Rent,” besides “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?,”I’ve Decided to Marry You” and “Poison in My Pocket,” but the score is very powerful.
The staging of “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” when Phoebe makes that pronouncement to Monty as he hides the married Sibella in his bedroom during their affair, was very memorable, comical and dynamic as Massey dodges back and forth singing about his loves while trying to keep them a doorway apart.
The love triangle seems to work together in the end secretly to free Monty, so it seems that he will face no consequences for his actions.
Until another less-known D’Ysquith lurks on a roof above him singing about how he’s sitting there with poison in his pocket.
Could Monty face the same fate as his victims as the plot comes full circle post-story? We don’t find out.
But one thing’s for sure. Even after the D’Ysquiths dropped dead, the audience was very much alive with applause and a standing ovation.
More information about the production and purchasing tickets is available on www.bushnell.org.