In the 1940s and ’50s, Britain’s Ealing Studios dominated the landscape of sophisticated dark comedies. The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers all starred the great Alec Guinness as the deadpan anti-hero in outrageous adventures that were far to smart to just be labeled farces. One of Guinness’ best roles, though, was actually eight roles: All the family members (young/old, male/female, gentle/wicked) tapped as victims of a murderous social-climbing illegitimate heir to an hereditary earldom in the cultural commentary Kind Hearts and Coronets. A comedy about murder? It might not have been the first, but it remains one of the best, and gave Guinness a signature turn at creating multiple memorable characters with abandon. (In recent years, no one but Eddie Murphy has really tried to replicate that feat, or at least done so successfully.)
The 2014 Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder isn’t a carbon-copy of the Ealing film (the ending is different, and of course it’s a musical), but it’s just as withering in its dissection of the British classes… and it gives actor John Rapson free rein to horse around as all the members of the D’Ysquith family, soon to be knocked off my young, ambitious Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), the disinherited black sheep of the D’Ysquiths who wants to become earl so he can marry his gold-digging girlfriend … even though he’s actually falling for his distant cousin.
This production, at the Winspear through Sunday, had the good sense to be as fluffy and delightful as cotton candy, with a stage-within-a-stage that adds a layer of artifice: It’s an old-style English music hall, a vaudeville of jaunty songs and colorful costumes and sets. (The show it most calls to mind for theater queens might be The Mystery of Edwin Drood.) Nevertheless, writer Robert L. Freedman sneaks in some saucy political commentary among the one-liners. It’s a fanciful and clever show, a bright respite from the summer heat.