Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but love is still in the air.
For the D’Ysquith family of London, so is death. Eight of them drop dead in the hilarious musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” This much is not a spoiler. Like so many great murder-mysteries, we know who the killer is, and we know why they committed their crimes. What we really want to know, with shameless fascination, is how.
It was Mr. So-and-So, in the such-and-such room, with the this-and-that weapon.
The Tony Award-winning musical opened Thursday night at Shea’s and runs through Wed., Feb. 22. It won nearly every Best Musical award handed out in the 2013-2014 Broadway season, and many others, for Robert L. Freedman’s clever book and lyrics, Linda Cho’s costume design, Darko Tresnjak’s direction, and more. Yet as celebrated as it is, it remains a virtual unknown.
Though not technically an original musical, having been based on a 1907 Ron Horniman novel, it might as well be. That it plays on stage like an obscure British novella, tucked away in a drawer — or a radio play, with its peculiar characters and madcap antics — is a breath of fresh air.
The Broadway production ran for just over two years, and starred the great Jefferson Mays in the ambidextrous, eight-character role of the D’Ysquith Family for its entire run. This is a juicy part for an actor of great range, precision and stamina. John Rapson handily takes the reins on this tour, swapping characters as easily as one might change slippers, from a ghastly priest (think “The Princess Bride”) to a surly dame (think John Belushi as Elizabeth Taylor), and plenty more.
Rapson plays well with our murderer, Monty Navarro, the innocent-enough romantic who upon hearing he is ninth in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst, offs each of his relatives. Kevin Massey is a delightful and devious Monty, graduating him from novice cousin-killer to professional executioner with charm and ambition.
His two love interests—the Cupid’s arrows to his crime spree—are equally captivating. Kristen Beth Williams is a trip as the self-involved Sibella, whose songs routinely end on a long-held “Me!” Kristen Hahn is lovely as the ladylike Phoebe. Their rousing, door-slamming “I’ve Decided to Marry You” with Monty showcases Peggy Hickey’s clever choreography, and is a highlight. “Better With a Man,” a duet between Monty and a love-struck victim, offers a lyrical dance rife with innuendo.
Tresnjak repeats his efficient direction on this first national tour, eliciting top-grade performances from a small but most agile cast. This being a British story, there’s plenty of nuance and wit that Tresnjak handles with white gloves. Blink and you’ll miss some of the smartest fun. You might have sit close to catch some it, too. Fitting as this room is for a old-fashioned musical, I wonder if its size swallows some of the show’s smallest charms.
It takes a while for the piece to find its momentum, however this is a problem on the page and not the stage. While a musical comedy need not open with a big number, I really miss one here. It might help establish the environment a little more obviously. Alexander Dodge’s wildly inventive set is a playground for vaudevillian presentation and physical comedy, but it takes a while to get the ball rolling. Lutavak’s score is fitting but not memorable, while Freedman’s lyrics are sharp and fast.
These are minor clashes, but they correct themselves quickly, leaving way for a solid new classic that’s easy to love.
“A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"
3.5 stars (out of four)
Musical comedy through Feb. 22 at Shea's Performing Arts Center (646 Main St.).
Tickets are available online and at the box office. $27 to $72.
Info: sheas.org, 847-1410