Review: A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER Serves Dastardly Clever Edwardian Fun
"For God's sake, go!" warns the black-clad chorus at the top of A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder as they advise the more squeamish patrons who might be shocked at the evening's gory dramatics to leave immediately.Don't listen to them or you'll miss a rollicking good time and a smashing Broadway debut for composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak, bookwriter/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and director Darko Tresnjak.
Half British music hall and half Grand Guignol - garnished with flavors of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan - Gentleman's Guide is a pocket-sized musical that dazzles with lyrical wit, dark comedic fun and bravura showmanship. Intelligent and merry, all the elements work splendidly from start to finish.
Based on Roy Horniman's 1907 novel, Israel Rank (stripped of its arguably anti-Semitic tone), and set in Edwardian London, mellow-voiced Bryce Pinkham is charmingly noble and earnest (but not for long) as Monty Navarro, a bloke of modest means who is told on the day of his mother's funeral that she was born a member of the titled D'Ysquith family, but was disinherited and shunned by the lot of them when she married his father, now deceased, for love instead of for money and position. Though still near penniless, Monty is now in line to inherit the Earldom of Highhurst, with only eight family members standing between him and the honor.
The news makes little impression on his lady love, Sibella (comically highbrow and lovely sopranoed Lisa O'Hare), who loves him for his intelligence and personality, but intends to marry a handsome and wealthy bore. (She soon learns that "good-looking people who are stupid get on one's nerves sooner than plain people who are stupid. At least plain people do feel they must make an effort.")
So while Monty is an honest and respectable chap, the lure of winning Sibella's hand as well as her heart and the fact that those preceding him in the line of succession turned their back on his mother drives him to murder his way to the top.The riotously versatile Jefferson Mays, not only plays the priggish present earl, Lord Adalbert, but all of the relatives Monty must dispose of in order to replace him. The first act covers a remarkable year of family misfortune with Mays portraying a dotty assortment of victims, both male and female, such as a doddering old reverend, a prissy bee enthusiast, an overtly charitable grand dame, a kindly businessman, a horrendous actress and a hulking body-builder. A true gentleman, Monty never gets his hands bloodied while performing the dirty deeds but rather creates situations that facilitate the demises of his rivals.
The second act involves the romantic complications that arise while on his way to striking the final blow. Though Monty still enjoys the married Sibella's intimate company, he has also attracted the heart of his cousin, Phoebe (adorably perky and also lovely sopranoed Lauren Worsham), who aggressively intends to marry him. The trio's scenes are peppered with abundantly clever dialogue and a door-slamming musical scene where Monty tries making love to both of them without their knowledge of the other's presence is the musical highlight of an evening loaded with strong and energetic vocal ensembles.
The peppy period score is injected with the cleverest lyrics currently tickling Broadway ears. Lord Adalbert's G&S-inspired gem has Mays befuddily declaring, "I don't understand the poor / And they're constantly turning out more! / Every festering slum in Christendom / Is disgorging its young by the score." A tentative waltz, "Poison In My Pocket" has Pinkham dexterously popping out tongue-twisting syllables.
Set designer Alexander Dodge helps keep the dastardly doings lighthearted by placing a small, wonderfully ornamental music hall stage onto the boards of the Walter Kerr; a colorful theatre of death comically utilizing stagecraft no more advanced than what would be available a hundred years ago. Linda Cho's elegant and humorous costumes complete the sumptuous picture.
Despite its bloody premise, and the warnings of the opening chorus, A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder is quite suitable family fun; a civilized entertainment impeccably presented.