The Column Online



(National Tour)
Book/Lyrics by Robert L Freeman and Steven Lutvak

AT&T Performing Arts Center

Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Musical Direction by Larry Goldberg
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge
Costume Design by Linda Cho
Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier
Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne
Hair & Wig Design by Charles G. Laponte
Make-Up Design by Brian Strumwasser
Vocal Arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell
Production stage Management by Daniel S. Rosokoff

John Rapson-The D'Ysquith Family
Kevin Massey -Monty Navarro
Kristen Beth Williams-Sibella Hallward
Adrienne Eller-Phoebe D'Ysquith
Mary VanArsdel-Miss Shingle
Christopher Behmke,-Magistrate
Sarah Ellis-Swing/Dance Captain
Matt Leisy-Tom Copley
Megan Loomis-Tour Guide
Dani Marcus-Swing
Lesley McKinnell-Miss Barley
Kristen Mengelkoch-Lady Eugenia

Ensemble- Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch,
Ben Roseberry

Reviewed Performance: 8/16/2016

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

In 2014 a musical opened on Broadway that was not based on a popular film (GASP!), or constructed around a particular artist's music catalogue (WHAT?), a TV show (NO!), or used music that was already published and recorded (SHUT UP!). You mean a musical that has an original score? Are you hitting the sauce as you write this review?! No, it's true!

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (AGGTLAM) is a new musical that surprised everyone on the great white way. In 2012 it had its premiere at the Hartford Stage. Then in March 2013 it would have another go at it, this time at the Old Globe Theatre. Finally it arrived on Broadway in November 2013 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It closed in January 2016 after a very healthy run of 905 performances. It also was one of the few musicals that recouped its entire investment. The musical received nine Tony Award nominations, winning four, including Best Musical (winning over After Midnight, Aladdin, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical). It also has the distinct honor of taking home the Triple Crown for Best Musical during the 2014 New York awards season. It not only won the Tony for Best Musical, but also took home Best Musical from the Drama Desks, Outer Critics Circle, and the Drama League.

In a nutshell the plot of this musical (NOTE: following paragraph is taken verbatim from the official tour website) "Tells the uproarious story of Monty Navarro, an heir to a family fortune who sets out to jump the line of succession by—you guessed it—eliminating the eight pesky relatives who stand in his way. All the while, Monty has to juggle his mistress (she’s after more than just love), his fiancée (she’s his cousin but who’s keeping track?), and the constant threat of landing behind bars! Of course, it will all be worth it if he can slay his way to his inheritance… and be done in time for tea."

Robert L Freeman and Steven Lutvak’s book, score, and lyrics are mixed and poured in together to create one of the finest plates of British Beef Wellington and Sticky toffee pudding you have ever tasted. The score has a sprinkling of Gilbert & Sullivan, vaudeville, English Music Hall, and operetta. You do get a tiny whiff of familiarity of Rupert Holmes score from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Each song is composed with sublime music. The lyrics are a work of master craftsmanship in character development and moving the plot along. Many of the wonderful songs have gut busting lyrics that really assist in letting the audience into the minds of these characters. It’s easily one of the best scores I’ve heard composed for a new musical.

Darko Tresnjak’s direction is magnificent, clean, and concise, all wrapped in a cocoon of outlandish comedy. Tresnjak has been with the production since its first mounting, so over those years he has fine-tuned the piece right down to the curtain call. His blocking and staging are marvelous and he uses Alexander Dodge’s set like a bigger than life chess piece to create his visions. His approach in directing the comedy, both in speaking and movement is extraordinary. Thanks to this cast and his direction, the laughter never, EVER subsides.

The scenic design by Alexander Dodge awaits you the very moment you step into the theater. This is a small cast, so he has designed an absolutely incredible set that is both intimate, yet huge in scope-all at once! The proscenium is framed with towering pieces cut out to look like jigsaw puzzles. This gives the aura of you the audience having to put these pieces together to discover how our lead actor kills his victims, as well as who loves who! The centerpiece is a mini-stage, designed with ornate patterns and framework. This mini stage is painted in golds, reds, and greens that pop. Dodge also has made the “stage” of this centerpiece to slide downstage for many of the scenes. He has a blood red shimmering curtain that throughout the evening reveals where the next scene takes place. Dodge’s designs for the various scenes are amazing. From a plush drawing room, to a stuffy rich English mansion, even a pond for ice skating with trees and snow sprinkled in glitter.

When projection designs first came out, it raised the bar in the art of scenic design. But now at times it feels like they are used simply because they are cheaper that real life set pieces, and this has resulted in ho-hum, lazy scenic design. Aaron Rhyne’s projection design reminds us how they can work in flawless harmony with actual set pieces. His projections are all shown dead center within the framework of the mini stage. These projections show the grey, foggy cemetery that has the D'Ysquith mausoleum, to a towering church cathedral, to a lovely garden, and so on. But where his projections really shine is when they are used to work in sync with the scenic design, the book, lyrics, and direction. That is a massive challenge for any designer, but not for Rhyne.

Linda Cho’s costume design is mouthwatering! These Victorian costumes are designed with such grand detail and precision. Because I was seated so close to the stage I could see the intricate detail in the beading and the patterns within the fabrics that were created for the women’s costumes. The two female leads wore extremely tight corsets that you have to wonder if they have oxygen tanks right off stage for them to breathe! These two women wear works of art in cloth thanks to Cho’s luxurious designs. Let’s not ruin the fun for you here, but suffice to say there were several times where you could hear audible gasps because of these exquisite gowns. Because one actor has to play seven roles (both male and female), Cho designed a costume for each one from head to toe. But the actor had at times mere seconds to change from one character to the next, and thanks to Ms. Cho those costume changes went smoothly. You see on stage why she won the Tony award for Best costume design. Praise should also go to the hair and wig design by Charles G. Laponte. His creations were not only designed for the proper period, but very detailed and coiffed beautifully.

Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design works hand in hand with all the other designers. An array of color and a myriad of shapes, shades, and precise design of light are splashed on the set thanks to Rosenberg’s work. Like the other designers, he too created lighting to heighten a song, a vocal crescendo, or add another layer of laughter to the shenanigans occurring on stage. The cast of AGGTLAM has to be one of the funniest, knee slapping touring companies to hit Dallas! They work like a well-oiled machine- if that machine was manufactured by the comedic gods. I must commend them all on the crisp, clean diction that everyone in the company had. Their British accents did not drop once nor sounded muffled or swallowed up within their dialogue. You could hear and understand clear as a bell every word, both in book and lyrics. From the leads to the ensemble, they induced so much laughter all evening long. They are a company you will completely fall head over heels for.

The ensemble portrays a variety of characters throughout the musical. They are mourners at a funeral, servants, newspaper boys, maids, cops, and so on. But they made each character unique and were able to cause laughter with their comedic talents. Vocally their harmonies were grand, clean, and elevated the score to delightful heights. This fantastic ensemble comprised of Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis, Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch, and Ben Roseberry.

Mary VanArsdel is Miss Shingle, a relative of Monty Navarro and his now deceased mother. It is she who informs Monty of his real lineage within the D’Ysquith family. VanArsdel kicks of the evening with the rousing number “You’re a D’Ysquith”. She gives the character a glow of warm, buttery motherly love for Monty.

With a stage full of comedic geniuses you better know how to hold your own. Kristen Mengelkoch as Lady Eugenia not only achieves that, but provides a scene stealing performance that rivals the two leading men! Her facial expressions are like pies made of hysterical comedy that smacks every audience member in the kisser! Mengelkoch had the audience eating out the palms of her gloved, bejeweled hands. There were moments where she had to hold character because the audience would not stop laughing. That’s real comedy folks! Eugenia is married to Lord Adalbert (John Rapson), talk about a marriage from hell! These two spar off like two Japanese sumo wrestlers- if dressed in elegant costumes and not diapers! Their marriage makes the explosive, battling, and ugly marriages of Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton, Sid Vicious/Nancy Spungen, and Ike/Tina Turner look like fairytale marriages in comparison to theirs! Lord Adalbert even refers to his wife as a “wrinkled cumquat!” The dinner scene between these two (especially Mengelkoch) will have you crossing your legs because you are laughing so hard you might tinkle right in your seat. Lord Adalbert leads a number in the dinner scene titled “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, but it is Kristen Mengelkoch’s work in this musical number that has your eyes glued to her. Her reactions and comments during the song are stuffed and overflowing with comedy. She is the scene stealing star of this tour that will have you remembering her performance days after!

Adrienne Eller portrays Phoebe, who is already married to Henry D’Ysquith (John Rapson). When Henry brings over Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) to meet her, there is an immediate love connection between them both. You can already hear the familiar overtones of “Oh sweet mystery of life at last I found you” play through your brain when these two connect. Eller is a living, breathing porcelain doll. Angelic features, alabaster skin, and swooning lush eyes. Linda Cho wisely created all of Phoebe’s costumes in various hues of blue, giving her that second skin of sweet ingénue. Eller possesses a luxurious, sumptuous soprano voice that wafts through the grand Winspear Opera House. All of her songs are composed to show off that sublime soprano voice to shimmer and glitter. Her chemistry with Kevin Massey is both comical and highly romantic. You can almost see above them that tiny guy with wings, in a diaper, shooting arrows at them non-stop as though he was Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Eller may be the innocent love interest, but she also is allowed to display her comedic chops as well. There are a couple of musical numbers where she radiates zany comedy. You too will fall in love with Eller like Monty does!

The sexy, sensual seductress Sibella Hallward is portrayed by Kristen Beth Williams. Talk about Va-Va-Voom! She may be dressed in refined, high society Victorian gowns, but those confined corsets and gowns cannot contain the erotic heat and lust this woman ebbs from her body and characterization. Williams is a tall, ravishing beauty with hair of gold. With that gorgeous face and alluring eyes she has that quality that would cause men to slam into walls because they were unable to take their eyes off of her. Here again Linda Cho has designed her costumes with spot on foreshadowing. Sibella starts off in shades of pinks for her costumes, but by Act Two her color palette goes into lavenders, deep purples, and sizzling hot reds. Wait till you see her costume for the dinner scene! If Marilyn Monroe saw Williams in that costume, she would have stormed off the set! Williams wonderfully begins her characterization so sweet and lady like, almost a kewpie doll quality, then slithering into a sexy vixen that demands (and gets!) Monty’s love. Williams has a commanding, majestic soprano voice. The girl has some lungs! In one number she sustains a note with no hint of running out of air. She is that rare soprano that when it is time for her to crescendo and belt into a different key, there is not a hint of a break or crack. She has a smashing first number titled “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” that wins the audience over. As if that were not enough, she has the comedic chops as well. Her timing, delivery, and pace matched up with those jovial facial expressions was met with huge laughter from the audience. Her portrayal of this character is so perfect you can see why Monty worships her!

The musical trio number in Act Two titled “I’ve Decided to Marry You” easily becomes one of the major show stopping numbers of the entire show. Sung by Ms.Williams, Ms. Eller, and Kevin Massey as Monty, these three have a song that is a comedic actor’s number come true. The staging and blocking alone has you guffawing non-stop. The use of slamming doors, trying to listen into the other room, Monty preventing his mistress and is wife to bump into each other will have you cramping up from laughing so hard. All three of them sing with splendid vocals, but their comedy within the number is what makes this number stand out. When they finished, they were rewarded with a prolonged roar of audience applause and cheers!

Kevin Massey was in the original Broadway production of AGGTLAM, now he is one of the two leading men in this national tour. As Monty Navarro, Massey with his matinee idol good looks, can actually make his leading man chiseled features go from sweet, innocent schoolboy, to a lothario lover, to a charming Romeo, and then to a determined, menacing killer! Massey’s character practically never leaves the stage. Think Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He serves as narrator at the beginning from his prison cell as he writes in his memoir. But then he takes the audience on his sadistic, yet rollicking journey as he murders all the D’Ysquith heirs that stand in his way to great fortune and title. Plus he has to juggle two women who love him dearly. Busy fellow here! Massey has mesmerizing stage presence that glows blindly. He is a master when it comes to “taking” a look into the audience to emphasize a situation, reflect on a revelation, or to provide a comedic non-verbal “button” to the audience that me giggling loudly. These “spit takes” hit its mark every single time. Massey sings both in his solos and within the book his frustration of being split for his love for his two women, Sibella (Williams) and Phoebe (Eller). He does a peerless job of displaying lust for one, and sweet romantic purity for the other- both achieving rousing laughs. Vocally he sings with a superior tenor voice. His character is assigned many songs within the score, and each one he delivers with resounding success. He glides easily from soft notes to a big belt, and even a sweet falsetto. His chemistry with everyone on stage is impeccable. Be the ensemble, or his two leading ladies, and especially with John Rapson who plays all the D’YSquith family members. Massey is one of the major reasons why it is a must see production due to his performance. Few of today’s leading men can juggle romance and comedy equally, and have an unparalleled, extraordinary singing voice. Pile onto those requirements outstanding comedic timing, pace, and delivery with laugh out loud facial expressions. Massey has ALL those qualities within his splendorous, superlative talents!

Well, confession time here. I was so jealous of John Rapson at Tuesday’s performance. Why? Because as a character actor myself, he has the role that all of us character actors savor and drool for. Rapson gets to portray eight different characters (male and female), go through a dizzying array of costume and wig changes, accents, a big bosom, and even buck teeth! The role pours out so much comedy like a gushing fountain outside the temple honoring the comedic gods. From my close seat you can clearly see Rapson is having a ball portraying all these characters. He was able to make each and every single one of these roles unique, different, and all so damn freaking hysterical that he had the audience rolling in the aisles! Rapson possesses tour de force comedic talents that leave you speechless with your sides and face aching from laughing so hard (damn him! LOL). I honestly cannot remember the last time an actor of Rapson’s magnificence had me laughing constantly all evening long. Most of the characters he portrays has his or her own musical number, and oh dear lord is he FREAKING hysterical in those numbers! I so wish I could tell you what he did in those numbers- but no! You have to see it for yourself and enjoy the surprises Rapson has in store for you! As a fellow actor, we all know it takes a village to do fast costume changes. Rapson must have an army in the wings waiting for him. He doesn’t just switch a simple hat or a coat-nope-he changes into a completely full new costume, including wig, make-up, and accessories. And he does this in mere seconds! But there is not a drop of sweat on his face. He looks cool and fresh as a cucumber. His stage presence is electrifying. And Nathan Lane, watch your back- here comes your competition! Rapson’s comedic timing, pace, and delivery is a master class in comedy. I lost count how many times he had to hold character because we the audience were screaming in laughter. His facial expressions added yet another level to his genius comedic talents. John Rapson gives a phenomenal performance that in truth is a comedic masterpiece to observe. Look for this guy to be walking across the stage to accept his Tony Award in a few short years- count on it!

If you are reading this review because this tour is coming to your city or nearby (or here in the DFW area), then I must demand and insist you buy your tickets NOW! With so many jukebox musicals or musicals based on films or TV shows, or shows that use existing music, this is a sparking jewel of originality that we hardly ever get to see created for the stage anymore. The book and score are a musical theater performer/fan’s dream come true. It may be set in the stuffy, British Victorian era-but it is so far, far from that. Dallas/Fort Worth is extremely lucky to have this tour stop in our area. I promise you that you will not regret seeing A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder at the Winspear Opera House. This ranks as one of the finest, FUNNIEST, most enjoyable national tours I’ve seen. There is not a single flaw you can find. From its direction, to its book and score, to the design elements, and of course this insanely talented cast. So, have some tea and biscuits and head on over to the AT&T Performing Arts Center. You will leave two hours later with your face hurting and a sore throat from laughing so hard!! But if you see a bee or a tiny purple flower in your seat, you might want to check your family tree. Why? Because you might be a D’Ysquith!

AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
Through August 28, 2016

For ticket info, prices, dates, seating, parking, location, etc. You can find it all at: