“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” opens at the Hippodrome Theatre on December 27. (Courtesy video)
When so many musicals repackage jukebox hits or offer vapid scores that sound as if they were written using some aural equivalent of paint-by-numbers, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" cannot help but stand out.
This exceedingly imaginative work, 2014 Tony Award-winner for best musical, makes a most welcome visit to the Hippodrome Theatre.
Inspired by a turn-of-the-last-century novel by Roy Horniman (the source for the 1949 Alec Guinness film "Kind Hearts and Coronets"), "Gentleman's Guide" offers a rollicking good yarn. It's told with epigram-spiced dialogue — Robert L. Freedman wrote the book for the musical — that Wilde and Shaw would surely have admired. OK, so the plot involves a whole bunch of killings, some pretty darn cruel. Pretty darn funny, too. Dark comedy doesn't come much brighter than this one.
The national touring version of "Gentleman's Guide" holds up very well to the Broadway staging, boasting a well-oiled cast, along with Alexander Dodge's wonderfully evocative set and Linda Cho's spot-on costuming.
The spark that sets "Guide" on its ride is a notion that pops into the head of lowly Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) when he learns in 1909 that he's a member of the exalted D'Ysquith family, and that only eight other D'Ysquiths stand in his way to inheriting the title Earl of Highhurst.
How and why Monty launches a process of elimination, while simultaneously balancing intense feelings for two women all too eager to reciprocate, generates deliciously complicated theater.
Massey offers a lithe and winsome portrayal of Monty. His nuanced acting is matched by assured singing that helps make this serial killer a jolly good fellow.
John Rapson plays all the D'Ysquiths with panache, expert comic timing and the vocal chops to give melodies a hearty spin while making lyrics pop colorfully.
The actor leaves especially impressive marks as the bee-keeping, male-centric Henry D'Ysquith and Reverend Ezekial — he of the ultra-British toothiness, nervous tics and the most pronounced pronounciation possible of "Chartres."
Then there's the extra-unseemly Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, the longest-lived family member in the show. Rapson makes a nice meal out of this character's wicked Act 1 solo, which finds the ungodly lord complaining that he just doesn't understand the poor — "To be so debased is in terrible taste."
Kristen Hahn brings a silvery, flexible soprano and delectable personality to the role of Phoebe, Monty's marriage-minded cousin. Kristen Beth Williams likewise shines as Monty's first lady love, Sibella, who marries for money before Monty's prospects improve.
There's impressive work from the rest of the ensemble; just about everyone gets a chance to snatch a bit of the spotlight.
The music for "Gentleman's Guide" gives continual pleasure. Composer Steven Lutvak brilliantly tips the top hat to Gilbert and Sullivan in patter pieces, and, in the show's several waltzes, gives a smiling nod to Viennese operetta (especially Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus").
And I'd bet that "Poison in My Pocket," Monty's droll number sung as he tries to fell the philandering Asquith D'Ysquith Jr. while ice skating, is Lutvak's wink-wink riff on Barbra Streisand's comic version of "The Minute Waltz."
But in the end, everything sounds remarkably fresh, thanks to how the lyrics — Lutvak and Freedman share the credit for those — effortlessly serve the music, and vice versa. This is nowhere more evident than in a frantic, intricately crafted trio for Monty, Sibella and Phoebe, performed so dynamically here that you want to demand an encore.
At every turn, you can't miss the perfect finishing touches on the score provided by veteran orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Music director Lawrence Goldberg keeps it all percolating vibrantly, leading an orchestra that includes several of Baltimore's most reliable classical musicians.
The ever-stylish production underlines how this "Gentleman's Guide" to polishing off undeserving peers is simply peerless.