There’s a wide divide between death and humor, but the gap is narrowed to a razor’s edge in Broadway’s 2014 Tony Award-winning best musical now onstage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.
Playing out as a traditional British music hall entertainment in Edwardian-era London (like a Gilbert & Sullivan show), the plot focuses on a selfish premise: usurping your rivals (in this case, relatives) to reach the highest peak.
The production is artfully presented on a stage-within-a-stage which serves as a centrepiece for the scenes. Instead of an overture, the lights go up on the assembled company singing “A Warning to the Audience” advising of foul homicides and the high body count to follow, thereby prepping the patrons to expect tongue-in-cheek comic mayhem.
Monty Navarro (the main character played with a merry innocent, awkward charm by Kevin Massey), a mild-mannered but penniless young chap, has just buried his mother. He happens upon startling information: his mother was from the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, but was disinherited because she married a man far below her station. The penniless Monty, as it turns out, is now ninth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst, home of the nose-in-the-air clan. He realizes the title might give him a far better chance with his mistress, the wealthy, supremely sexy Sibella Hallward (a hedonistic, sensual Kristen Bell Williams). She rejects him as hopelessly poor and runs off to marry a wealthy suitor of convenience. Something has to give of course, meaning eight people will have to perish. Methods of execution include bees, freezing-cold water, a provoked heart attack, a gun, falling from a church spire, and decapitation (evoking uproarious laughter), among other methods. He learns much as he seeks to avenge his disowned mother and justify the adoration of his beloved. However, the virtuosic comic turn here belongs to John Rapson, taking on dizzying quick changes of costume and characterization with hilarious aplomb playing all the D’Ysquith heirs—men and women alike. Rapson sings, dances, ice-skates, bicycles and generally romps through the eight roles — flipping among personas male, female and somewhere in between — at a pace that sets your head spinning.. His is a grand achievement making the musical work extremely well. He’s the best special effect this show has, and given the levels of the others, that is impressive. Methinks the actor gets an after show oxygen feed to offset the dizzy pace he sets during performances. Alec Guinness pulled off an identical feat in the 1949 film “Kind hearts and Coronets” which was loosely based on a 1907 novel, and was an obvious inspiration for this outing.
Kristen Beth Williams is a woman of beauty with an equally matched singing voice for the love interest Sibella. She is striking in every scene both visually and audibly.
Adrianne Eller plays the brunette Phoebe D’Ysquisth who seeks to marry Monty. She’s a prudish beauty who seeks proper actions in her men. Eller is solid and suitably stoic where needed.
The trio of Monty, Siebella, and Phoebe provide a stunning bit of musical theatre (“I’ve Decided To Marry You”) that becomes a stunning feature of act two.
The rest of the ensemble cast does pristine perfect work rounding out the townsfolk and innocent bystanders to all of this mayhem. They are well up to the challenge of farce meeting music hall as well.
Kevin Massey makes a fine romantic lead as Monty, and manages to make murder seem perfectly acceptable and congenial. He has a strong singing voice, and his comic timing is a match for Rapson.
Sets, costumes, and special effects are all first rate and innovative. A digital screen is effective for very fast scene changes allowing for spectacular filmic effects throughout the production. The costumes are all appropriately over the top with as much comic flair as anybody wearing them.
All in all you have a great comic cast that can sing, a top-notch technical presentation, and a fun show that has sly fun with a dark concept. It all sounds a good bit darker than it is, because the entire production is played as broad comical farce. Not since Sweeney Todd has a musical been so delightfully swept up in violent carnage set to rhythmic music. It’s a show that will have you smiling from start to final curtain, and it’s got an amazing amount of energy and merriment to share with an audience.
The murder, mayhem, madness and mirth continues at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre through June 26.
Written by: Alex Reynolds