Homicide has rarely been as hilarious as it is in A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder, the murderously mirthful quadruple-Tony-winning Best Musical of 2014, now paying a crowd-delighting weeklong visit to the Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Meet Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), a handsome, personable young chap whose recently deceased mother’s youthful marriage to a Castilian musician ended up getting her not only pregnant but disowned, and who now finds himself ninth in line to inherit the D’Ysquith (“D’Y” as in “die”) fortune.

All he has to do to get his hands on it is bump off Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, and Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith—in that order.

Not only does news of his late mother’s disownment give Monty reason enough to contemplate revenge, the refusal of his beautiful but mercenary sweetheart Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams) to marry a man without means seals the deal, sending our hero off to dispose of D’Ysquith after D’Ysquith in the most entertaining of ways.

There’s murder by falling through thin ice (while gliding across it on skates), murder by bee stings (a whole swarm of them), and murder by prop gun (that’s supposed to have blanks in it, but doesn’t), and that still leaves five more murders before fortune and Sibella are Monty’s.

What our merry murderer hasn’t counted on is meeting distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Kristen Hahn), and when cousin Phoebe shows up at Monty’s doorstep to make the musical announcement “I’ve Decided To Marry You,” who should already be there but Sibella, leading to some of the funniest, most sharply timed physical comedy this side of French farce.

Oh and did I mention that every single one of Monty’s victims is portrayed by one prodigiously talented actor, 2009 University Of Michigan grad John Rapson in roles that scored the considerably more seasoned Jefferson Mays a Tony nomination?

It is, and spectacularly so.

For a musical comedy like A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder to work as splendidly as this one does, not only must our antihero be as sympathetic as the ever so likeable Monty most definitely is despite his pesky predilection for murder, the musical’s tone must also be frothy and gay, and not just when victim number five, Henry D’Ysquith, informs Monty in delectable double-entendre, that “It’s Better With A Man.”

Fortunately for audiences from Broadway to Costa Mesa, Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s lyrics are every bit as sparkling and witty as Freedman’s book, from Lord Adalbert’s “I Don’t Understand The Poor” (“And they’re constantly turning out more”) to Lady Hyacinth’s “Around The World With Lady Hyacinth” (“Every dilettante will envy me and want a colony of lepers of her own!”), and many more in between.

Lutvak’s tunes match them to perfection, the talented composer’s melodies evoking greats like Gilbert & Sullivan, Lerner & Lowe, and Stephen Sondheim. (Frequent Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick just happens to be on board as orchestrator.)

Under Darko Tresnjak’s inspired direction, Rapson gives eight of the year’s most scene-stealing, gender-bending, rig-tickling performances, including a wonderfully weird Reverend Lord Ezekial, a fabulously flaming Henry, a deliciously dotty Lady Hyacinth, and (at least) five more of equally outrageous quirks.

The dashing and delightful Massey more than holds his own against all those Rapsons, Williams proves a comely, curvaceous treat as Sibella, the equally heavenly Hahn easily gives her love rival a run for her money, and all three sing quite gloriously indeed.

Mary VanArsdell tops the cast of supporting players as a wonderfully wacky Miss Shingle, and she is matched in smaller roles by one gem of performance after another—Christopher Behmke (Magistrate), Matt Leisy (Tom Copley), Megan Loomis (Tour Guide), Dani Marcus (Miss Barley), and Ben Roseberry (Chief Inspector Pinckney), with special snaps to Kristen Mengelkoch’s scenery-(and husband)-chewing Lady Eugenia opposite Rapson’s Lord Adalbert.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey has devised some jaunty, intricately-timed dance steps for all of the above to execute, with musical director Lawrence Goldberg scoring top marks too, as do vocal arrangers Dianne Adams McDowell and Lutvak and the production’s smashing twelve-piece orchestra.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design cleverly inserts a Edwardian-era music hall stage inside the Segerstrom proscenium, each new parting of its red velvet curtains revealing yet another unexpected visual treat thanks to projection designer Aaron Rhyne’s clever (and absolutely gorgeous) animations.

Linda Cho’s period costumes range from lavish gowns to funeral garb, with the many character-defining outfits she’s created for Rapson being particular treats. Philip S. Rosenberg’s vivid lighting design, Dan Moses Schreier’s crisp sound design, Charles G. LaPointe’s luxuriant wigs, and Brian Strumwasser’s character-defining makeup are all winners as well.

Sarah Ellis (dance captain), Ruth Pferdehirt, David Scott Purdy (fight captain), and Chuck Ragsdale are swings. Eric H. Mayer is production stage manager.

Providing a bright-and-breezy (and unapologetically amoral) alternative to the darkness and drama of fellow 21st-century Best Musical Tony winners Spring Awakening and Fun Home, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder has no other goal in mind but to entertain, and entertain it does. You might not actually die laughing, but you’ll come close.

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Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 28, 2017
Photos: Joan Marcus

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