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Wild ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ excels in every way

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From left, Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey and Adrienne Eller bring the house down in the touring production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” at the Golden Gate Theatre. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

In the multi-Tony-winning musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” the show-stopper occurs when the “gentleman” in question, Monty Navarro, is accepting a marriage proposal from his cousin Phoebe while simultaneously keeping his mistress, Sibella, hidden in an adjoining room.

The wonderful thing is that the farcical scene, with its chirpy, three-way “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” appears in Act 2, after 15 songs that are just as great, starting with the hilarious introductory number, “A Warning to the Audience,” delivered by a grim, black-clad ensemble, and continuing with such Gilbert & Sullivan-like gems as “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”

The cleverly rhymed lyrics (by Robert L. Freedman, who also wrote the book) and catchy melodies (by Steven Lutvak, co-lyricist) are performed by an excellent cast under Darko Tresnjak’s direction and choreographed with enormous wit by Peggy Hickey.

Based on a 1907 novel by Ray Horniman that was adapted into the 1949 Alec Guinness film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” the story, set at the turn of the century, concerns a man of genteel poverty (Monty, played with low-key relish by Kevin Massey) who suddenly discovers he is in line to inherit the D’Ysquith family fortune and the grand title of earl.

All he has to do is kill the eight D’Ysquiths ahead of him. They include the wonderfully named Asquith D’Ysquith (père and fils), Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, the dithering reverend Ezekial D’Ysquith and the giggling beekeeper Henry D’Ysquith — all of whom are played to discrete perfection by the chameleon-like John Rapson (who portrays other characters as well).

The ways that the amiable Monty goes about his business are delicious, but no spoilers here.

This is a sumptuous production that excels on every level: the orchestra (music director, Lawrence Goldberg); Alexander Dodge’s detailed Edwardian sets, enhanced by Aaron Rhyne’s crystal-clear projections, which take us from skating ponds to cathedral towers to elegant parlors; Linda Cho’s exaggerated, Edward Gorey-like costumes (when the clueless and beneficent Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith—Rapson again, of course—sprints around the globe, from Egypt to a leper colony in India and elsewhere, she dons a different, culturally appropriate outfit for each journey).

Among the terrific players are Mary VanArsdel as the singular Miss Shingle; Kristen Beth Williams, a shallow and seductive Sibella; Adrienne Eller’s excitable cousin Phoebe; and Kristen Mengelkoch as the wife (to Rapson’s wild-eyed husband) in the most spectacularly vicious marriage ever.

REVIEW
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Presented by SHN
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 27
Tickets: $45 to $212
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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