TAMPA — Some plays set out to make the audience think, to challenge conventions or just tell a good story.
Musical comedies aim to lift the mood. They want to make you leave feeling better than when you came in.
By that measure, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, which opened Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, surpasses expectations. It's easy to see how the show won four Tony awards in 2014, including best musical. Gentleman's Guide is as lavish as the upper-crust British nobility it spoofs, a visual spectacle.
The set changes via a rotating circular platform or by a limitless supply of imagery in the background, as if on a movie screen. The effects depict an opulent palace or the humble living quarters of an ambitious clerk, a lush garden or a medieval-looking prison cell.
Through that kind of technical brilliance on every level, the audience comes closer than seems possible to actually living in the scenes. It's a lot like special effects in a movie, and the scenic design by Alexander Dodge and projection design by Aaron Rhyne must be acknowledged.
Based on a book by Robert Freedman and music by Steven Lutvak (the two combined on the lyrics), A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder principally is a story about a little guy who gets kicked around by a lot of big guys but won't give up his quest.
It's hard not to take that bait, and leading man Kevin Massey makes sure that we can't resist. In the opening scene, set in 1907, a mysterious visitor tells the impoverished clerk Monty Navarro that he is actually a blue blood.
You're a D'Ysquith, a duet between Monty (Massey) and Mary VanArsdel as Miss Shingle, gives Navarro a goal and a noble justification for pursuing it. The stranger reveals that Navarro's mother was born a D'Ysquith, but then disinherited after she eloped with a musician.
On learning he is a descendant, Monty would like to reassert his place in line. Money is only part of it — he's also in love. His girlfriend, Sibella, won't marry Monty unless he can support her in style. And she's not convinced his newly discovered aristocratic lineage will help.
Another obstacle: In order for Monty to inherit a penny, the eight people ahead of him would have to die.
Monty introduces himself with a letter to Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, the aging patriarch and head of the family banking business, but is rebuffed. A series of bizarre and fatal misfortunes then befall other D'Ysquiths, and Monty is always nearby when they do.
The pace is quick and most of the lines are sung, which means you have to stay on your toes. Songs that must convey so much plot information tend to be more serviceable than sublime. There are some exceptions, including I Don't Know What I'd Do Without You by Monty and Sibella (charmingly played by Kristen Beth Williams), and I Don't Understand the Poor, by John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith and a strong ensemble.
None of this would work without really capable actors; and Massey, Williams and Rapson all have Broadway credits. While Massey's portrayal of an endearingly devilish antihero steals the limelight much of the time, it is Rapson who actually carries the heaviest load. Rapson changes costumes and characters every few minutes, playing nine members of the D'Ysquith family, including two with the title of lady.
Singing throughout the show is first-rate.
The plot never stops twisting, which is fun. The flip side is that you might miss them if you're not paying close attention. The show moves that fast.
Particularly extraordinary visual effects include a massive Dutch masters painting behind guests at a dinner table in the D'Ysquith estate. The dinner guests are positioned and choreographed virtually to blend into the painting; just as the outdoor scenes, in particular, invite the audience to step into other worlds.
These kinds of achievements, and fine performances all round, help make Gentleman's Guide an enjoyable evening.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.