By Jackson Riley
The jovial hit A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, which took home the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical, hits Chicago for a limited engagement (through October 11th) before embarking on the rest of its national tour. A production rich in energy and design though surprisingly basic in humor, Gent's Guide may not bring the house down, but you're sure to leave the theatre wearing a smirk.
In Edwardian-era London, one-dimensional comedic hero Monty Navarro (a sweet-voiced Kevin Massey) has just buried his mother. Penniless and without many prospects, things look gloomy for Navarro until he is visited by one of his mom's old friends, Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel). Shingle reveals to Navarro what his mother wanted hidden forever: he is eighth in line to the Earl of D'Ysquith. His dearly departed mother was cut off from both estate and society because she married a man that the family did not approve of. With his gorgeous and hilarious mistress, Sibella, threatening to marry another guy who is more well-to-do, Navarro hatches a plan to murder his way up the social ladder and therefore, win Hallward over. Kristen Beth Williams stars as Sibella - a performer with such great energy and timing that she commands attention from her male counterparts with every line.
Standing in our lead's way are the eight heirs to the D'Ysquith family. They're all played by John Rapson, and herein lies the production's gimmick. Rapson plays a beekeeper, an ice-skater, a drunk reverend, a bitter actress, a charitable old woman, a stockbroker, a major, and (of course) the Earl himself. Rapson's individual performances are not distinct nor memorable - instead, he constantly scrapes the bottom of the barrel with his attempts at humor - screaming every line, helming a ridiculous (and inconsistent) accent, and putting on a show that would make a notoriously over-the-top performer like Adam Sandler proud.
Adrienne Eller completes the play's underused love triangle as Navarro's cousin Phoebe. Her gorgeous voice and excellent timing are squandered by the script's inability to allow a woman to have the spotlight for more than just a moment.
A Gentleman's Guide is fun. It is also lavishly designed, and (for the most part) wonderfully performed. However, watching people scream as loud as they possibly can at each other is only funny for so long, making this performance just as hit-and-miss as a recent episode of Saturday Night Live. Yet, I am still happy to recommend the musical for attempting something different and in a big way. It's a shame they couldn't deliver something truly unforgettable.
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER runs through Oct. 11 at the Bank of America Theatre (18 W. Monroe).