From time to time in the mock-Edwardian musical farce A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder you may be reminded of the inspired antics of an old “Carol Burnett Show.” When actor John Rapson cavorts on stage at the Hippodrome Theatre, as one of no less than eight character roles, he takes us back to the heyday of master skit comedian Harvey Korman — maybe with a pinch of loony Dom Deluise and a dash of daffy Margaret Rutherford thrown in.
In short, there’s a lot of talent invested in those eight roles, making this 2014 Tony Award-winning Best Musical by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak a casting director’s nightmare. Fail to find an actor versatile enough to slam home each of those impersonations and the whole door-slamming house of cards collapses.
Happily this production, under the staging of original Director Darko Tresnjak, has glommed onto the indefatigable silliness of John Rapson, and audiences are very much the satisfied beneficiaries.
Beneficiaries is not a loosely used word here. All the play’s hilarious mayhem stems from a young man’s extra-legal claims on his family inheritance. That means he has no time for regrets over the stack of relatives’ corpses he leaves behind him as he makes his deadly dash up the line of succession.
The young Londoner throwing himself so lethally into the path of temptations is named Monty Navarro, and in the evening’s second-best piece of casting he is winningly played by Kevin Massey. As an unjustly disinherited outcast, Massey projects the proper amounts of sweetness and human vulnerability to make us overlook his more fatal manipulations of fate.
Massey often high-steps across the stage with all the grace of a cartoon cat laying a trap for a mouse. He also has the perfect singing voice for his tongue-in-cheek comic solos like “Foolish to Think” and “Sibella.”
Sibella is Monty’s fickle would-be fiancée, a knock-out blonde given to parading around in laced-up bodices and cleavage-friendly dresses. This role is a natural for Kristen Beth Williams, who makes Sibella as much an attention-grabber as a social-climber. Williams also has a first-rate bel canto voice, turning the songs “Poor Monty” and “I’ve Decided to Marry You” into the sort of delicious self-parody once delivered by the wonderful Jeanette MacDonald.
The brunette side of the trophy-bride equation is amply supplied by a separate Kristen — this one Kristen Hahn as Phoebe, yet another of the dubious gold-diggers in the family tree. Hahn truly comes into her own as one-third of the Act Two musical showstopper, “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” Here with exquisite timing on all fronts, Monty entertains the advances of both Kristens while keeping them apart in one of the best-crafted sets of lyrics outside a Sondheim show.
Others offering superb support include Mary VanArsdel as the helpful but enigmatic family servant who launches Monty on his quest; a third Kristen, Kristen Mengelkoch, as the terrible-tempered Lady Eugenia; and Ben Roseberry as Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Pinckney.
Keeping the three Kristens, the eight Rapsons, and that one hard-working Massey all hopping in unison as the show enters its second year on the road is Choreographer Peggy Hickey. Hickey may have some Swiss blood in her as the stage movement here often shows the precision of an old Swiss timepiece.
Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge solves the problem of tailoring all those special props and backdrops to the circumstances on the road. He has provided a stage-within-a stage in the form of a plush old Edwardian music hall proscenium in which the various bits of animated tomfoolery and Aaron Rhyne’s projected effects never seem out of place.
Phillip Rosenberg’s lighting schemes, Linda Cho’s costumes, and Dan Schreier’s sound design all contribute to the sense of a fluid, cinematic fantasy.
With this excellent piece of escapist parody, the Hippodrome wraps up 2016 in an appropriately giddy bow. The run is short, but is it sweet!
Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder plays through January 1, 2017, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center -12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For ticket, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.