Was murder ever so much fun … or so funny?
Every time someone died onstage at the Florida Repertory Theatre, the audience gleefully laughed and applauded.
The more gruesome the death, the louder the approval.
You might think them heartless, but they were watching the Tony Award-winning musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” on the mainstage in the Historic Arcade Theatre.
They can’t say they weren’t warned.
In the prologue, “A Warning to the Audience,” the ensemble implores audience members to escape while they can.
“It’s not too late/…For God’s sake, go!” they sing.
It’s 1909 in London, and Monty (David Darrow) learns after his mother’s death that she was actually a member of the extremely rich D’Ysquith family. They had disinherited her, however, because she married for love, and they disapproved.
Monty’s girlfriend, Sibella (Gail Bennett), loves him, but she’s a social climber who wants to marry a man with money and position.
So in order to get the girl, Monty must become earl.
And before that could ever happen, the sultry and flirtatious Sibella points out to him, eight people would have to die,
Monty approaches the D’Ysquith family but is rebuffed. (You just know the family is snobby because they have an apostrophe in their name.)
Then he visits the one family member who is a priest, thinking surely he will have compassion. The priest (Marcus Stevens, who skillfully plays the entire D’Ysquith family throughout) takes Monty up to the roof of a cathedral to show him the view and the architectural details. But, due to high winds and drunkenness, the priest slips off the roof and falls to the cobblestones below.
Now only seven people stand between Monty and an earldom.
He ponders: Why not help along the process of elimination?
And so, his little killing spree begins.
Mr. Darrow’s Monty is so innocent, so sweet and boyish, you can’t help but root for him.
And the deaths are very creative, all made to look like accidents: skaters falling through ice, a beekeeper stung by hundreds of bees.
Mr. Stevens adeptly portrays each D’Ysquith family member, from the muscle-bound weightlifter to the busty, self-righteous do-gooder Lady Hyacinth (costumes by Charlene Gross).
As the ensemble tells us, the D’Ysquith family tree is being whittled down to a twig.
(Not that the D’Ysquiths are liked, but it’s all very suspicious.)
And keep your eye on Jan Neuberger, who plays Miss Shingle (who informs Monty of his lineage) as well as a number of other characters, including a bartender who admires herself in the reflection of a spoon or mug. Even when she doesn’t have dialogue or lyrics, she’s doing something humorous.
Set designer David Arsenault has given us a gigantic, plush library with leatherbound books and a small, red-curtained stage in the middle. Its curtains open to reveal various locales: a bar in which Henry D’Ysquith and Monty get cozy and sing “It’s Better with a Man,” a hall at the D’Ysquith’s castle with portraits that come to life and sing “A Warning to Monty.”
(This musical is apparently full of unheeded warnings.)
The music, directed by keyboardist Victoria Casella, would be right at home in an early 20th century British music hall. And the lyrics are Gilbert-and-Sullivan-meets-Tim Burton. (Robert L. Freedman wrote the book and lyrics while Steven Lutvak wrote music and lyrics.)
Based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” the show and lyrics are full of double entendres and clever scenes.
One highlight of this thoroughly entertaining musical (which is stuffed with one highlight after another) is Mr. Stevens’ song as Lord Adalbert, “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”
“I don’t understand the poor/The lives they lead/Of want and need/I should think it would be a bore,” he sings. With attitudes like this, no wonder no one misses the D’Ysquiths as they die off.
Another highlight is the number “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” in which Sibella and Phoebe (Alex May) declare their love to Monty. When they wind up in his home at the same time quite by accident, he tries desperately to keep them from discovering one another’s existence. (It would certainly ruin things to have his fiancée and mistress meet.) The song is so well-choreographed, so well-executed and performed, it brought a roar of approval from the audience at its end.
Florida Rep and director Jason Parrish have a triumph on their hands. Not only is this an excellent cast, but Mr. Parrish skillfully gets the right mixture of lightness and humor from his actors. (After all, humor is difficult, but dying is easy.)
Yes, this is a musical about murder and social-climbing, but it’s just such giddy fun.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is not only full of wicked merriment, but it’s also murderously fun. Go see it. You’ll die laughing. ¦
In the KNOW
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
When: Through March 7 Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, downtown Fort Myers Cost: $55 and up Info: 239-332-4488 or www.floridarep.org