Arts theater review

Love and murder adds up to a night of laughter

2014 Tony Award-winning musical comes to Boston

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Left to right, Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D'Ysquith in a scene from "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder."
Joan Marcus courtesy of National Touring Company

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Book by Robert L. Freedman; Music by Steven Lutvak; Lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Running through Oct. 23
Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre
265 Tremont Street, Boston

When the curtains opened for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the ensemble stepped onto the stage in dark mourning clothes to warn the audience that we’d be in for a disturbing tale (“Prologue: A Warning to the Audience”). I wondered if I was about to experience a grim, Sweeney Todd-like evening, but that was far from the case — even though the show packed in a fair amount of murder, the bloodshed only contributed to the musical’s hilariously over-the-top story set in Edwardian England.

We’re thrown right into the tale of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), an average man living an average life who has suddenly found out that he is ninth in line to inheriting the D’Ysquith estate. Given the name of the musical, and that “D’Ysquith” is pronounced “DIE-squith,” it should not be surprising that Monty decides to kill his way to the top.

He makes his way steadily through the D’Ysquith line of inheritance, with each of these D’Ysquith’s played by John Rapson — that’s right, Rapson plays nine characters over the course of a single performance. During his role as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, he sings “I Don’t Understand the Poor” in an uproarious, extraordinarily pretentious fashion, pointing to audience members in the top balcony as he repeats the title of the song.

Rapson later transforms into Henry D’Ysquith, a married man who clearly prefers men, giggling and flirting with Monty as they sang “Better With a Man.” Soon afterward, Rapson continues to bring laughter to the audience when he appears as Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a philanthropically driven older woman who travels around the world with little concern for political correctness.

Rapson, however, is not the only actor who gets to play exquisitely defined characters. Kristen Beth Williams plays the part of Sibella, a passionate, confident woman with whom Monty is in love. Williams’ gorgeous voice in “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” teases at Monty’s desire, and Monty strings along the tension between their characters during Massey’s strong performance in “Sibella.”

Notable aspects of the night include the harmonious pairing between the costumes designed by Linda Cho and the set designed by Alexander Dodge. In Sibella’s room, the curtains were draped with gorgeous pleats and a beautiful bouquet of flowers brightened the stage, complementing Sibella’s equally ornate, flowing dress. The interior of the D’Ysquith’s castle was opulent and polished, matching the sleek, red coat of Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith.

The musical is driven much more by the unique personalities on stage than its overall plot, allowing us to spend more time laughing at the characters’ silly slapstick rather than trying to keep track of the complicated family tree — and it makes for a delightful two and a half hours of love and murder.