Until he was in his early 30s, Kevin Massey didn’t realize how much he liked killing people.
He’d enjoyed his year swinging through the African jungle on vines, his time as a horseman on the Dakota prairie, even his stint as a disc jockey in racially conflicted Memphis. But until he slew almost every member of the upper-crust D’Ysquith family, he didn’t come into his own.
The Black Mountain native initially expected to save lives, not take them. He enrolled at UNC in 1997 intending to become a doctor, but destiny had bloodier ideas. That’s why he’s playing multiple murderer Monty Navarro in the national tour of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which pops into Knight Theater Nov. 22 for a two-week stay.
Hang on: Massey, who also understudied the part on Broadway, would like to explain why his character is innocent – metaphorically, if not literally.
“The audience does seem to root for Monty from the start,” he says of the show, which won four Tonys (including best musical) two years ago. “I’m trying to use my big doe eyes – ‘Feel sorry for me!’ – because Monty really has lost everything at the start. He has lost his mother. He has no prospects. He’s interested in a girl who wants to marry only for money.
“The delicate line I have to walk is to retain that innocence while committing heinous crimes. Monty never directly kills anyone (at first); he leaves it to Fate. He finds out people’s weaknesses, and their own vices become their downfalls. As he gains more power and money, he gets affected by that and gets twisted. John plays the victims so hideously that you keep rooting for me.”
“John” is John Rapson, who embodies eight members of the D’Ysquith family standing between Monty and the earldom of Highhurst. If this sounds familiar, you may recall the great Ealing Studios film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” with Dennis Price as the killer and Alec Guinness as his victims.
Both the film and musical descend from the 1909 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Ray Horniman. But the film is an icy comedy, the musical a warm one. And Massey, its nominal straight man, his discovered the laughs come harder if he lets Rapson take most of them.
“If I feature him when he’s supposed to be featured, and I take my little moments, we both succeed,” he says. “It feels like a team effort. Sometimes you’re at odds with your co-star, but not here. And he brings different things to it every night. I still laugh at him onstage.”
Massey has been a team player since stumbling into success.
After graduating from Owen High School – which he still mentions on his resume at kevinmassey.com – he went to UNC to become a small-town general practitioner. He joined the a cappella group Clef Hangers and realized his voice, not his fingers, would be his fortune. He switched his major from pre-med to music and, after graduating, joined a buddy bound for New York.
On a lark, he auditioned on a Friday for a European tour of “Grease.” Five days later, he was headed to Germany, where he sang Doody in English and German. He played the title role in Disney’s “Tarzan” there and understudied it on Broadway. He also understudied Huey, the DJ with an interracial romance, in “Memphis” on Broadway. In between, he toured as Almanzo with the musical “Little House on the Prairie,” where he met future wife Kara Lindsay.
“We started dating after ‘Little House’ and got married three years ago. When you’re in a show together, it’s a bubble. There’s a fantasy that the other person is perfect. Then you end the job, and things change. I wanted to make sure (what I saw) was the truth, and then I snagged her!”
They work as a team, discussing the effects of jobs on their careers. Right now, she’s back in Broadway’s “Wicked” as Glinda; he spoke from their New York home on a break from the “Guide” tour. He’s been on the road for a year, so he bolts home (or she travels to see him) when either gets a break.
“Whenever she visits, it’s like a vacation,” he says. “We’re outside the stress of New York. We eat in new restaurants and travel around new cities. We want great careers for each other, but our relationship is a priority whenever a gig would take us apart. We make it work – but it’s not easy.”
‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
When: Nov. 22-Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. No show on Nov. 24, but a 2 p.m. matinee is added for Nov. 25.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.