Dec. 14 2016 12:26 AM

Dark comedy dominates in Wharton Center’s latest show

Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey, right) sets out to claim an earldom by killing off the D'Ysquith heirs (all played by John Rapson, left) in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," which opened at the Wharton Center Tuesday.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s nothing personal, just business — family business, that is. For the high body count in the show, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is relatively tame. But if you like a little black humor Review with your musical, this show is a fun night out.

Written by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is a gleefully naughty story with evocative but ultimately unmemorable songs. The show won four Tony Awards in 2014 including best musical, but it was fortunate to not compete with the likes of “Book of Mormon” or “Hamilton.” That said, the cast is incredible, with voices to match. Add to that exquisite costumes and a striking set, and this show turns Edwardian murder into comic spectacle.

Set in 1909 London, a poor Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) finds out that he is a distant heir of the wealthy D’Ysquith (pronounced “DIE-squith”) family. Through family friend Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), Navarro learns that mother was disinherited from the D’Ysquith family for marrying a musician. In order to win the heart of his vain girlfriend Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams), who swears the man she marries will have “wealth and property,” Navarro must obtain earldom by eliminating the eight family members before him in the line of succession (all played by John Rapson).

Staged like a play within a play, the show features Navarro narrating his unlikely journey from the bottom as he coordinates the “accidental” deaths of almost all of his relatives. But don’t worry, they’re all pompous twits anyway.

Like an Alfred Hitchcock film with music by Gilbert and Sullivan, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is morbid but never gory. Rapson is the true star, switching genders and accents and costumes with every scene, somehow making all of his deaths seem justifiable. He’s especially adept nailing double-entendre phrases like, “May I warm my hands in your muff?” But his best scenes are opposite Massey as Navorro leads each D’Ysquith family member to their unwitting demise.

Aided by an incredibly ornate set designed by Alexander Dodge, complete with red velvet curtains and digital projections designed by Aaron Rhyne that jump locales and continents, the show moves along briskly with minimal set changes.

The best songs, such as “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” lightly skewer the bubble of British aristocracy, But the real joy is watching Rapson strut around with a new voice and sneer before comically biting it — over and over again.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14 and 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
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000,