The first glimpse of Monty Navarro that stands out is a little smirk at the top of the show. He sits at his desk in prison, dipping the fountain pen into warm ink, ready to write the unlikely story that unfolds over the course of 150 minutes on the stage. But just before the pen starts to move, that villainous smirk is revealed.
It is the smirk of a man who kills for love, for lust, for status and for money – a sweet faced man whose prowess with death would make Sweeney Todd blush.
Both the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Monty Navarro would certainly have plenty to talk about if they met up at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, where the four-time Tony Award winning musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is running through Dec. 27th. Directed with ferocity by Darko Tresnjak, this delightful romp through death via frozen ice, some super hungry bees and serious splats after a drunken landing off of the local church bell tower may not be a laugh riot, but it is certainly full of wit, driven by some wonderful, key performances.
Monty learns that his recently deceased mother was not necessarily the simpleton he always believed she was. In fact, he learns from the mysterious Ms. Shingle (a delightful Mary VanArsdel) that his mother was a D’Ysquith, the aristocratic family that cast her out after she picked up and left with a Castilian musician.
With the new knowledge of his status, Monty (the dashing charmer Kevin Massey) looks to get off the ninth rung of the ladder of heirs and start trying to occupy prime spots above his own. This is necessary because the woman he loves, the blonde beauty Sibella (a rangy Kristen Beth Williams) is on her way to marry the dull but very rich and unseen to the audience Lionel Holland. Monty and his pauperish tendencies are certainly no match for the wealthy Lionel. But as Monty, thanks to his new, bloodthirsty ways, continues to rise up that ladder of heirs which will ultimately land him as an Earl, Sibella starts to rethink her commitment to that bore Lionel.
What changes the trajectory a bit is Monty’s meeting with the lovely Phoebe (charming as can be Adrienne Eller). She is the sister to one of Monty’s victims, and a perfect Countess candidate. As long as the victims keep piling up, it’s just a matter of time.
Now about those victims…
This is the part of the show where the brilliance lies. There are eight potential victims in Monty’s way, those victims portrayed in breakneck speed by John Rapson, who is credited as “The Dysquith Family.” Initially, it takes a smidge to process the differentiations, but when that is accomplished, it does not take long to appreciate the full on commitment that Rapson brings to the role.
Rapson kind of exists on this spitty and snarly level, with this incessant physical and visceral drive. Each of his characters are what bring the hilarity to the show. Whether it was the buck-toothed lush of a reverend, a hideously passionate bee keeper, horndoggy ice skater or even Hedda Gabler, Rapson delighted the audience with each character he presented.
The lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak are certainly fresh and snappy, exemplified in numbers like “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and the absolute showstopper “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” a number that had the opening night audience roaring with sustained delight.
Technically, Linda Cho’s costumes feature every stitch that’s worthy of the Tony Award she won, and the Tony nominated set by Alexander Dodge features many delicious, subtle touches.
Where the show kind of fizzles is, pardon the pun, overkill. Certainly there are lots of moments that have plenty of Edwardian comedy of manners type humor. And other moments are terribly hilarious. But the comedy certainly seems imbalanced, a lot more chuckle and a lot less belly, a discrepancy not helped by a running time that feels too long.
Still, this is a very entertaining night of theatre. I might not have gone gaga over the entire show, but I certainly went haha over plenty of it. Watching Monty put the die in the D’Ysquith’s was certainly worth sticking around, even though the opening number told the audience they may want to get the heck out of the building.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
The Word: A bit too long and not belly laugh hilarious, but a musical assisted by a plethora of brilliant individual performances.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours, 2o minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Through Dec. 27th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $212
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com