A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder: Theater Review
Playing eight doomed aristocrats, Jefferson Mays steps into shoes worn by Alec Guinness in the screen classic "Kind Hearts and Coronets" in this new musical based on the same novel.
While the source material credited for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is Israel Rank, an Edwardian novel by Roy Horniman published in 1907, the show’s key inspiration lies in the film adapted from that book, Kind Hearts and Coronets. That wonderful 1949 Ealing Studios black comedy cast the incomparable Alec Guinness as eight English aristocrats standing in the way of a murderous commoner’s noble birthright. The virtuosic comic turn here belongs to Jefferson Mays, taking on dizzyingly quick changes of costume and characterization with hilarious aplomb. But that’s by no means the sole enticement of this toothsome new musical.
During previews, Broadway chatrooms have drawn facile comparison to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Tony-winning 1986 Rupert Holmes musical that was given a sparkling revival last season. While there’s some overlap in the pastiche score and vintage British music hall-style staging, Gentleman’s Guide is far superior, propelled by a rollicking story, humor of the most delectable amorality and the cleverest lyrics assembled in quite some time. Just hearing Mays as the ridiculously posh Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith scoff his way through “I Don’t Understand the Poor” (a wicked anthem for the one percent) is enough to restore an audience’s faith in musical comedy while getting them in the mood to off some toffs.
The Broadway musical can often seem a hermetic art form, with the same handful of directors bringing their signature stamps to the majority of new projects. This is a case where a creative team of first-timers yields rewards across the board. That applies to the devilish book by Robert L. Freedman; to Steven Lutvak’s tuneful songs; to the inventive direction of Darko Tresnjak, a seasoned veteran of the Off Broadway and regional trenches, graduating to theatrical primetime with honors.
With its sumptuous design elements and versatile ensemble taking on multiple roles, this is a small-scale show that feels both intimate and lavish. The material clearly has benefited from the fine-tuning rigors of two pre-Broadway runs, at Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe.
Heightening the artifice of the presentation, set designer Alexander Dodge creates an ornate proscenium draped in ruched curtains made of the bloodiest red velvet, with a promenade playing space down front behind the old-fashioned footlights. A prologue sets the arch tone as members of the company file on to warn the faint of heart, in song, to depart while there’s still time. “For God’s sake, go!” is their mock-urgent entreaty.
Cut to the poky garret in Clapham, London, occupied by Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham). Fresh from his mother’s funeral, Monty learns from her old friend Miss Shingle (Jane Carr) that his dear departed was disinherited from the aristocratic D’Ysquith family when she married his father, a Castilian musician. And while he learns that subsequent attempts by his mother to renew her noble blood ties were rebuffed, Monty discovers he is eighth in line of succession to become Earl of Highhurst, the D’Yysquith family seat.
Monty’s girlfriend, Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), a vain beauty determined to marry not for love but for wealth, inadvertently plants an idea in his head: “As if you could ever be an Earl. Eight people would have to die for that to happen! How likely is that?” Very, it turns out, as Monty explains in the prison confessional letter he composes, which provides the story’s efficient framing device.
Too much description of the means by which the D’Ysquiths (pronounced DIE-skwith) meet their maker would spoil the merriment, which is heightened by the ingenuity of Mays, the chameleonic actor who won a Tony in 2004 for the multicharacter solo play I Am My Own Wife. It’s giving nothing away, however, to say that the homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is priceless.
Among the most delicious of Mays’ glorious hambone characterizations are the Rev. Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, a drooling old cleric with a shocker of an overbite and a bad case of the Katharine Hepburn shakes; Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., a dandyish twit with a fondness for tarty showgirls; Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pomphrey, an untalented West End thespian chewing her way through Hedda Gabler; Henry D’Ysquith, a stammering closet-queen beekeeper who never lost his public schoolboy proclivities; and Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a bosomy philanthropist so determined not to be outdone by a rival do-gooder that she’ll grasp at any cause du jour. Monty takes cunning advantage of that desperation by sending her off to the colonies in “Lady Hyacinth Abroad,” one of the show’s most riotous numbers, bursting with outrageously broad ethnic jokes and dance moves to match. (The fun choreography is by Peggy Hickey.)
Tresnjak understands that half the amusement comes from celebrating a particular school of bad acting at its campiest. The show embraces a full spectrum of moth-eaten British comic archetypes, not least of them the frightfully plummy Adelbert, togged out in upper-crust hunting gear and brandishing the unfortunate fox, his big number backed by the singing portraits of deceased forebears. Also unmistakably English is the musical’s judicious smattering of bawdy humor and double entendres.
Some of the ripest of these are served up in Henry’s “Better With a Man,” a paean to the joys of masculine company that’s like one of Professor Higgins’ and Colonel Pickering’s My Fair Lady patter songs taken to its gayest extreme. That Lerner and Loewe classic is among the inspirations knowingly ransacked in Lutvak and Freedman’s songs, along with the wordplay-rich comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan and the droll sophistication of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. The score also encompasses fluttering romance in numbers like Monty’s “Sibella” or “Inside Out,” which he sings with the lovely Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), a pure-of-heart D’Ysquith determined to make right the injustices wrought upon her disenfranchised cousin.
Inevitably, some of the helium escapes the balloon after intermission, when most of the D’Ysquiths separating Monty from earldom have been dispatched and Mays’ protean talents take a backseat. But not enough to seriously crimp the enjoyment. The second-act opener, a ditty called “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” -- in which gossipy mourners roll their eyes at the attention-seeking ostentation of any family stacking up so many sudden deaths – is a finely crafted piece of Wildean wit. Another highlight is “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” in which Monty is farcically torn between sensuality (Sibella) and virtue (Phoebe). His trial and its surprise outcome are staged with crisp economy and an eye for humorous detail, and like the Ealing movie, the show’s slyest joke is that Monty is charged for a murder he didn’t actually commit.
From the leads down through the multitasking chorus, this is a superb ensemble, vocally and in their facility for verbal and physical comedy. Broadway newcomers O’Hare and Worsham are particularly welcome discoveries – crystalline sopranos with sharp comic instincts. And while the showiest work naturally goes to Mays, Pinkham’s invaluable anchoring presence cannot be overlooked, lending his dry understatement to pretty much every scene. The actor’s skill at retaining Monty’s malleable core of decency while steadily loosening the reins on his fiendishness makes him a flavorful antihero, and his robust tenor ranges effortlessly from aching sweetness to soaring power. Shaking off the pall of 2012’s woeful Ghost, Pinkham emerges here as a terrific musical-comedy leading man.
The delicate orchestrations of regular Stephen Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick and pristine vocal arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell and Lutvak give the show full-bodied musical dimension. And Dodge’s playful set design is matched by Linda Cho’s equally smart period costumes.
In an increasingly risk-averse Broadway landscape where more and more musicals come from mainstream-brand movies or hit song catalogues, this bright little jewel is a legitimate treat. Oh, and pay attention to the leading players’ bows for one final throwaway visual gag that sends the audience out laughing.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O’Hare, Lauren Worsham, Jane Carr, Joanna Glushak, Eddie Korbich, Jeff Kready, Jennifer Smith, Price Waldman, Catherine Walker
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Book: Robert L. Freedman, based on a novel by Roy Horniman
Music: Steven Lutvak
Lyrics: Robert L. Freedman, Steven Lutvak
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Music director: Paul Staroba
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Presented by Joey Parnes, S.D. Wagner, John Johnson, 50 Church Street Productions, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Kathleen Johnson, John Arthur Pinckard, Catherine Adler, Megan Savage, Shadowcatcher Entertainment, Ron Simons, Four Ladies & One Gent, Greg Nobile, Cricket CTM Media/Mano-Horn Productions, Joseph & Carson Gleberman/William Megevick, Dennis Grimaldi/Margot Astrachan, Ryan Hugh Mackey, Green State Productions, in association with Hartford Stage, Old Globe.