“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” might not be the best-known musical playing this weekend in the Kanawha Valley.
It doesn’t have the name recognition of the Alban Arts Center’s production of “Rock of Ages,” which was made into a film featuring Tom Cruise. It’s not as storied as “Oklahoma!” the musical Charleston Light Opera Guild is doing for its 70th anniversary.
But director and retired West Virginia State University theater professor Susan Marrash-Minnerly said, “It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.”
West Virginia State University is presenting the Tony Award-winning musical this week in the Davis Fine Arts Theatre on campus.
The musical is based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” which became the basis for the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a dark comedy about social class tensions and ruthless murder starring Alec Guinness as nine members of the doomed D’Ascoyne family — changed to D’Ysquith in the stage production.
In the musical, Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst, recounts what drove him to knock off the members of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family.
“There’s nothing unpleasant about the show,” Minnerly said, adding, “Except for the murders.”
WVSU doesn’t have a theater department, Minnery explained, but they have a music department and students interested in drama. The school wanted to produce another show. It hadn’t since 2016.
“But we approach it carefully,” she said. “We looked at a lot of material.”
Shows like Elton John’s “Aida” and “Kinky Boots” were considered.
“But ‘Kinky Boots’ was just too dance-heavy for us,” she said. “We looked at ‘The Toxic Avenger,’ but...”
Minnerly laughed and added, “That was really kind of a one-joke show.”
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” just seemed to fit.
“And it didn’t have a huge cast,” she said. “We’re mostly students and they have such crazy schedules.”
Minnerly promised that the show was a silly take on the over-the-top melodrama.
“I compare it to a ‘Penny Dreadful,’ one of those 19th century pieces of fiction that were full of murder, suspense and mystery,” she said.
It’s just not a serious version of one.
“It’s a wildly funny, melodramatic puzzle,” she said.
Minnerly said while “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” might not be as well known as some other Tony Award-winning shows, it has a lot to offer and is suitable for almost every audience.
“There’s a lot of slapstick,” she said. “There are a few innuendoes, but that’s going to go right over a kid’s head. It’s a safe enjoyable show, you know — except for the murders.”