Segerstrom Center next in line for the 2014 Best Musical
The plot of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which has been tickling tour audiences since it topped the 2014 Tonys, may sound a little creepy, but according to one of its current stars, “You can bring your 10-year-old and you can bring your 90-year-old grandmother to see it.”
Mary VanArsdel is part of the national touring company that lands in Orange County for a week at Segerstrom Center beginning February 28. Her Miss Shingle is the character who kick-starts the story by planting the seed of retribution in the mind of impoverished Monty Navarro. A 39-year employee of the wealthy D’Ysquith family she has long known of Navarro’s true identity. So, shortly after his destitute mother’s death, she reveals that his mother was a D’Ysquith who was disinherited for marrying his Spanish father. Raw from being rejected as too poor by the love of his life, he now schemes to re-insert himself into his family lineage. Then, too impatient to await the passing of eight heirs in line ahead of him, he bumps them off one by one.
The title fight …
Like Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd 35 years earlier, brilliant lyrics and beautiful music made Navarro’s crime forgivable and something The New York Times claimed “will lift the hearts of all who’ve been pining for what seems a lost art form,” and that The Hollywood Reporter agreed that it “restores our faith in musical comedy.”
“Lyrically it’s incredibly clever and the music is really lovely,” VanArsdel said. “If audiences enjoy Stephen Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein, it’s definitely got that kind of melodic flavor. There’s a real smartness about it that you don’t see that much today.”
In addition to its Best Play Tony, the show won for Robert L. Freedman’s book, Darko Tresnjak’s direction, and Linda Cho’s costume design. Steven Lutvak was nominated for the score and for the lyrics he co-wrote with Freedman.
A high point of a Gentleman’s Guide is John Rapson’s performance as all eight male and female Navarro victims. In addition to his turnstile acting focus, there’s a backstage team engaged in a flurry of costume changes that in one case must happen in 16 seconds.
“It’s like a NASCAR pit stop backstage,” VanArsdel said. “John basically stands still while they work on him. Nadine Hettel, his dedicated dresser, is really the unsung hero of the show. Suzanne Storey does his hair and make-up, adding a mustache here and there and mopping him down and making sure he has plenty of water. It’s entertaining to watch.”
A familiar story …
That acting feat is one similarity with the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Alec Guinness played all eight characters. The film was based, as is Gentlemen’s Guide, on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.
It’s really a commentary on class snobbishness and elitism and lack of empathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is definitely still relevant today.
The stage version begins in the 1909 two years after Navarro learns of his past. Now the Ninth Earl of Highhurst, he is in prison for his crimes and writing a memoir he suggests be titled A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
“The story is told basically in flashback,” said VanArsdel. “As a result everything is sort of amplified in his mind and the show is stylistically very broad and he bumps off those people, who are very, very odious characters, are so original and imaginative that, while nobody would ever advocate murder, you do kind of root for him. And he starts off pretty guileless and destitute. It’s really a commentary on class snobbishness and elitism and lack of empathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is definitely still relevant today.”
For information, visit the show page at scftra.org