The last time Michigan native John Rapson appeared at the Fisher Theatre, he was a face in the crowd — part of the ensemble cast of a production of Les Miserables.
But starting Oct. 4, the actor will be front and center on the boards of the venerable Detroit theater in a starring role in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which runs through Oct. 16 at the Fisher.
Actually, Rapson has eight starring roles. The actor, who grew up in Washington Township and attended Rochester schools, plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith family, the role(s) for which the energetic Jefferson Mays won a Best Actor Tony in 2014 (the musical nabbed four Tonys in all).
The madcap musical tells the story of Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey), an impoverished Englishman who discovers after his mother’s death that he is related to the titled, wealthy D’Ysquith clan.
Monty is eighth in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst. After would-be girlfriend Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams) scoffs that eight would have to die before he inherited anything, Monty resolves to hasten the demise of the eight inconvenient D’Ysquiths. It’s a wild ride that includes mistaken identity, a hero torn between two lovers, an elusive inheritance and of course, murder.
The musical is based upon the same novel — 1907s “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman — as the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” which featured Alec Guinness playing the D’Ysquith family. The film has a more subdued, British vibe, but a similar fondness for the ridiculous.
“Watching Guinness in that, you kind of see the basis for what we think of today as British comedy, you see the beginnings of the (Monty) Python era,” said Rapson by phone. “The reason I love this show is that it mixes highbrow and lowbrow comedy. It’s either the highest-brow show or the lowest-brow that anybody’s ever written.”
The frothy “Gentleman’s Guide” combines several comic elements. “When you combine the Pythons and ‘My Fair Lady’ and a little bit of ‘Sweeney Todd’ (the musical about the bloodthirsty barber) thrown in there, you have a recipe for a really good time,” Rapson noted.
To say the actor is in constant motion during the musical’s two and a half hours is an understatement. Thanks to his hard-working dresser, Nadine Hettel, who travels with the company, Rapson makes eight split-second costume changes to play the D’Ysquiths, some of whom are women, donning and shedding many ingenious, Tony-winning costumes designed by Linda Cho.
“We often say we could sell tickets for what goes on backstage,” Rapson said. “It’s interesting to see a three-piece suit kind of fall apart on the person’s body. Because it’s so well constructed, you wouldn’t believe it’s held together by a magnet and several zippers.”
Because he’s 29, while his predecessor, Mays, was 50 when he played the eight roles, one might presume that Rapson might have an advantage in youthful energy.
“At first it was, I thought, maybe that’ll come easier for me, but no,” he said with a laugh. He points out that Mays is a very youthful 51.
Mays attended run-through of the “Gentleman’s Guide” touring company, where he observed Rapson and gave him advice.
Mays advised the younger actor to stay still during the lightning-fast costume changes and resist trying to help. He also counseled him to “just breathe, use the (costume) changes as your time, even though they’re as hectic as they are. You get so little time offstage, so use them to rest, or at least to rest mentally.”
Rapson originally auditioned to understudy the role playing the D’Ysquith family, but he could tell over the course of 7-8 auditions that the team was enjoying his performances. “I also knew they were the kind of team that had the confidence in their show that they would hire the person they liked the best, rather than trying to hire a star.”
Although he saw the original cast several times on Broadway, Rapson knew he needed to find his own way.
“There’s no way you can do this role copying someone else,” the actor said. “It’s not going to be funny. You have to find all these wacky, crazy, often terrible people, and discover how they operate through you.”
Rapson credits the musical’s creative team with giving him that freedom. “A lot of the time they just want to recreate what they did.”
The touring company, which has been on the road for a year, was given a four week rehearsal process and two weeks of technical rehearsal, Rapson says. “So we had six weeks to discover and make it our own.”
Rapson has had a year to hone his role, drawing critical praise from the Denver Post (“a marvel in multiple roles”). The production will continue through March.
It all started for him back at Rochester’s Stoney Creek High School, where he played Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” setting him on a path of “Anglophile Britishness.”
He is also part of Broadway’s so-called “Michigan Mafia,” having graduated from the University of Michigan’s much-vaunted Musical Theater Department. Graduates of the program put on a “Maize and Blue on Broadway” celebration in May honoring retiring department chairman Brent Wagner.
“It’s an extraordinary program, and a heck of a legacy to be part of,” Rapson said.
Rapson’s parents and sister have traveled to catch his act, but seeing him at the Fisher will take it to a whole different level. Friends and family will come out “in droves,” he said happily.
“I cannot wait to be in town. Between the Fisher, the Fox and the Masonic Temple, I can pinpoint just about every formative experience I had with theater,” Rapson said.
Of the many ways he dies in the musical, Rapson is most fond of his demise as a weightlifting D’Ysquith. “Wearing this ridiculous bodysuit, he has a very unique thing happen to him involving a barbell.”
It’s harder for the actor to choose his favorite song. He gets to sing many zingy numbers, including, as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, dangling a “fox:” “I Don’t Understand the Poor” (“…The lives they lead, of want and need, lives that would seem to be a bore”).
“I really love them all, but I love doing the song “Better with a Man,” (with Massey) the most, just because it’s so much fun,” Rapson said. “It’s one of those moments, it doesn’t happen very often, where the audience is aware of the absurdity of the situation before the characters are. And that’s sort of fun. Everybody has a leg up on us.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
Cast: John Rapson, Kevin Massey, Kristen Beth Williams, Adrienne Eller
Directed by Darko Tresnjak, book/lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music/lyrics by Steven Lutvak
Runs: Oct. 4-16 (8 p.m. Tues.–Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays)
Venue: Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand, Detroit
Tickets: $25-$130, (313) 872-1000.
Note: Children under 5 not admitted.