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Learn How to Find Your Fortune in 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder,' Now at Playhouse Square

Macabre fun and frivolity

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People are a real problem, since they always seem to be standing in your way. You want a promotion, but there's already somebody else occupying that corner office. You want to live in that gorgeous house by the lake, but there's already a homeowner reading a book on that particular front porch.

Or you want to inherit that family fortune, but you are way back in line for the inheritance. For the law-abiding, that's just tough luck. But for the homicidally inclined, it's a glorious opportunity.

So it is for Monty Navarro in the crisply written and lushly scored musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, now at Playhouse Square. Broadway newcomers Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) find inspiration in the rhythms and witticisms of Gilbert & Sullivan to inform this whiz-bang romp.

The sprightly music enables this serial-killer operetta to charm the socks off anyone. Also, quite aside from the tunes, one of the big draws of this show on Broadway was one actor who played multiple roles with sharp comic timing and clear character delineations. In this touring production, the actor summoned to play all those roles doesn't quite achieve that same level of antic wackiness, but the play still works just fine.

Told in the form of a memoir, the aforementioned Monty is languishing at the tail end of a long line of wealthy D'Ysquiths. His mommy, you see, was a black sheep D'Ysquith who ran off with a sexy Castilian musician and she was summarily disinherited. But Monty's bloodline is still intact, and he figures he could become the Earl of Highhurst if only those other eight people in front of him would somehow disappear.

That's when the light bulb goes on and Monty begins to pursue his campaign to thin out the herd of the pompous and insufferable Die-quicks, er, D'Ysquiths. Monty also has a secondary agenda: earning the hand of lovely but shallow Sibella, the girl he is courting but who flicks him away because of his poverty.

Finding his request to rejoin the family rejected by the D'Ysquiths, Monty begins to seek out the doomed family members one by one. First to go is the dotty clergyman, Rev. Ezekial D'Ysquith, who unwisely chooses to show Monty the view from the top of his church's bell tower. With a little assistance from Monty, the Rev soon finds the fast way down to the ground and Monty is one step closer to his fortune.

As the comically arranged murders proceed — a fatal attack by cannibals here, a lethal "accident" with a barbell there — Monty is efficiently ratcheting his way up the family tree. Along the way, he accepts that it may not work out with Sibella, who is now engaged to another, so he opts for a romance with lovely young Phoebe, a distant D'Ysquith relative and not someone on his hit list.

The songs in Gentleman's Guide range from delightful to uproariously funny. In the latter category is "Better with a Man," a lyrical tribute to the joys of gay sex sung by Monty and Henry, the brother of Phoebe who is soon snuffed out by a frenzied hive of bees (wittily captured with some nifty staging effects). And the showstopper is "I've Decided to Marry You," in which Monty is literally and figuratively caught between Sibella and Phoebe in a door-slamming comic gem.

Ezekial and all the other soon-to-be-snuffed-out D'Ysquiths are played by John Rapson. He does a fine job with the Reverend and a couple others. But his insanely demanding acting task requires that he craft instantly recognizable characters that are humorous in different ways. And too many times, what should be sharp edges between one character and another are instead a bit blurry and ill-defined.

Perhaps Rapson is occasionally distracted by all the clothing changes, diving in and out of costume designer Linda Cho's sumptuous and clever duds in seconds flat. At times, you simply can't believe that the same guy is back on the stage in entirely different garb. Ah, the glories of Velcro!

The other lead role, Monty, is handled with precision and wide-eyed innocent venality by Kevin Massey. As Sibella, Kristen Beth Williams takes blissful self-involvement to a new level, and Adrienne Eller contributes a strong voice as Phoebe.

Director Darko Tresnjak creates a volley of different humorous twists on a set designed by Alexander Dodge to resemble an English music hall, complete with scalloped footlights and its own nicely detailed proscenium. And combined with the talents of lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, this is a production that satisfies the eye and ear while never bypassing the brain.

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