On the positive side, D’Ysquith is a fun word to say. Pronounced dies-k-with, an audience member viewing A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder will hear actors sing and speak this word several hundred times (it seems like thousands) during the course of this over-stretched musical.
The highlight of this show is the performance by one comedic actor who portrays nine different members of the D’Ysquith line—eight of whom must be killed so that Monty D’Ysquith Navarro (Kevin Massey) can claim his rightful place as the Earl of Highhurst. Six of the eight are killed with increasingly humorous gore that includes blood spatter coating a gaggle of actors, a decapitated head rolling across the floor, and (best of all) a frantic run from a digital colony of enraged bees.
My first viewing of AGGTLAM was ten months earlier in the last row of the second balcony of a Broadway theater. I was underwhelmed, but I incorrectly diagnosed that my reaction resulted from my poor seat keeping me too far from the humor. I recognized Jefferson Mays’s turn as the D’Ysquiths as brilliant, but I failed to see that Mays was single-handedly carrying a one-joke show on the shoulder pads of his nine costumes.
In the touring company, John Rapson’s performance is equally brilliant. In fact, his performance is a high-resolution photo copy of Mays’s performance. The same wigs and false teeth, and the same overly padded bosoms for his two drag costumes. The same mannerisms and varied accents, and the same spitting at his wife across the dinner table that seemed improvised by Mays but is droll on a second viewing. One of the joys of seeing a show with varying casts is watching the interpretations of different actors, but clearly Gentlemen’s Guide is emphasizing comedy by the book at the cost of the much needed originality that might help this show.
Ultimately, Gentleman’s Guide is a victim of the greatest sin for a musical—weak music. Every number is performed with the staccato vocals and irritating falsettos that are intended to imitate the stuffy upper class. Two numbers (“Lady Hyacinth Abroad” and “Why are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?”) are entertaining enough to maintain the audience’s attention between better tunes in better musicals. Many musicals including My Fair Lady, Me and My Girl, and By Jeeves all live within this same world of past British aristocracy, but the others mock this isolated social class in a few numbers while Gentlemen’s Guide rides this joke through every note of every song. Most unforgiveable are the four numbers that include Monty’s crush Sibella (cutting this flat character would be a gift for future audiences) and the end-of-act-one anti-showstopper “The Last One You’d Expect.”
One actor’s fantastic performance propelled audiences to award Gentlemen’s Guide the 2014 Best Original Musical Tony Award in a dreadfully weak year (competition: a juke-box musical, a Disney cartoon on stage, and “After Midnight,” which appears to be remembered only by Wikipedia). The dysfunction of the D’Ysquiths is enough to look at once, but on a second viewing expect to observe more flaws than laughs.