In the touring company of the musical comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Kevin Massey plays Monty Navarro, an impoverished young man who learns he is a distant heir to an earldom — and then sets out to kill the eight people who stand between him and the title.
“The first murder is really fun,” Massey said with a laugh. “In the beginning, the audience is figuring out what the show is. When you hit that first murder, they understand that this is the ride we’re going to go on. These murders aren’t going to be gruesome and scary, they’re going to be funny and over the top and creative.”
The musical, set in early 20th century England, pits Monty against the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, heirs to the Earl of Highhurst. Despite the murderous streak, Massey said, audiences find themselves taking Monty’s side.
“He’s really sweet and innocent, in a way,” he said. “And these people are so terrible. You find yourself wondering why you’re rooting for him to kill people.”
The musical, which opens Tuesday at the Wharton Center, took home four 2014 Tony awards, including best musical. Massey’s character is the focal point of the musical, which means he gets very few breaks. It’s a challenge just to sneak a drink of water or find a moment to catch his breath.
“It’s exceedingly physical. He’s back-bending, he’s holding poses, he’s climbing up ladders, he’s slamming doors, he’s dipping women — it’s a lot,” Massey said. “I’m a sweaty mess by the end of the first act.”
But the payout makes the effort worthwhile.
“It’s a challenge that’s rewarded well at the end,” Massey said. “The audiences love it.”
Massey was an understudy for the show’s Broadway run. While taking a show on the road has its challenges, the chance to play large theaters — like the 2,400-seat Wharton Center — is a great thing for a comedy musical.
“In New York, we were in a 950- seat theater. We haven’t played a theater that small yet, and we’ve been on tour for a year and a half,” Massey said. “It’s great having a big crowd. When they’re reacting differently, it changes our show.”
For New York-based actors like Massey, touring shows are also a great opportunity to perform for people who can’t make it to Broadway to catch a musical.
“I have so many friends and family around the country, and I get to bring the show to them,” Massey said. “That’s been such a joy for me.”
A native of Black Mountain, N.C., about 10 miles east of Asheville, Massey didn’t even consider a career in musical theater until after college.
“I didn’t realize you could make a living at this,” he said. “I always enjoyed doing it, but it was just a hobby.”
Massey graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied music and chemistry. He planned to attend medical school but decided to take a year off before applying.
“A friend of mine convinced me to move to New York for a year, and I never left,” he said, “I kind of fell into it, but I’m so glad I’m here.”
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13-Thursday, Dec. 15; 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18
Tickets start at $41/$28 students
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com