Lawrence Toppman

‘Gentleman’s Guide:’ Watching people die has seldom been such fun

Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) finds himself caught between women who pursue him (Kristen Beth Williams, left, and Kristen Hahn) in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” All three stand out in the show.
Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) finds himself caught between women who pursue him (Kristen Beth Williams, left, and Kristen Hahn) in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” All three stand out in the show. ©2016 Joan Marcus

Blumenthal Performing Arts president Tom Gabbard frequently does smart things, but his decision to hold off on the national tour of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” was particularly wise. He waited until he could get the 2014 Tony-winner into Knight Theater, which has half the capacity of Belk Theater and twice the intimacy.

Proximity makes a difference when you watch this engaging musical. You don’t strain to comprehend the wittily macabre songs by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, nor do the singers struggle to fill a large hall with sound.

You catch all the jokes in Freedman’s Tony-winning book. You can see the hideous fake teeth of Reverend Ezekial D’Ysquith or the gentle gyrations of the decapitated head of Major Bartholomew D’Ysquith. (It’s an “ewww” moment, but a funny one in context.)

You relate easily to Monty Navarro, whose disinherited mother has died and left him with no prospects. When a stranger tells him he’s an unacknowledged D’Ysquith, and eight members of the hated family stand between him and the earldom, you see a twinkle in his eyes as he contemplates their deaths. Kevin Massey plays Monty with the elfin mischief of a Danny Kaye, so we like him even as he loses his innocence in Act 2.

If this story line sounds familiar, you have probably seen the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” in which chilly social climber Dennis Price whacked eight odious avatars of Alec Guinness. (Both the film and musical come from Ray Horniman’s 1909 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.”) But where the film is dryly funny, stage director Darko Tresnjak – who also won a Tony – wants us to guffaw.

John Rapson draws the loudest laughs as the well-delineated D’Ysquiths (two of them female), each different from the others and one unexpectedly sympathetic. Massey plays well off them and his two amours, pulchritudinous Sibella (Kirsten Beth Williams) and sweet Phoebe (Kirsten Hahn).

Tresnjak keeps an ensemble of eight supporting players in constant motion, making it seem larger than it is, and ends scenes by dropping a red curtain in the equivalent of a film blackout. The story is a flashback, as Monty writes his memoirs, so the action plays out on a kind of a jewel-box stage within the Knight stage.

These devices and a number of patter songs show “Guide” to be the spiritual heir of Gilbert and Sullivan, had those gentlemen made jokes about codpieces or written a double-entendre number called “Better With a Man.” The story is set in 1909, when Gilbert was alive. Indeed, he wrote a serious play called “The Hooligan” in 1911; it took place in the prison cell of a convicted murderer, who had grown up in poverty and circumstances that made him amoral.

Freedman and Lutvak don’t have dramatic aims, though they burlesque the upper class when Adalbert D’Ysquith sings “I Don’t Understand the Poor.” Surely they’re not suggesting the world would be a better place if we bumped off the smug, uncaring swine who live at the expense of the lower classes. Or are they?

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’

When: Through 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.

Running time: 150 minutes.

Tickets: $25-$104.50.

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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