A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER
New Broadway musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.
Book by Robert L. Freedman. Music by Steven Lutvak. Lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak. Directed by Darko Tresnjak.
With Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham.
Schedule: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $50 to $147. 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com.
Propelled by the irresistible performance of Jefferson Mays, who plays eight characters -- none of whom survive the evening -- "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is one of the delights of the theater season.
The musical, which opened on Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is an extremely clever, exquisitely staged send-up of Edwardian England, with a heady pastiche score.
Written by Broadway newcomers Robert L. Freedman (who also wrote the book) and Steven Lutvak, the songs evoke a range of influences, from the British music hall to Noel Coward to Gilbert and Sullivan, accompanied by dialogue that at times suggests Oscar Wilde.
The story comes from the 1907 novel "Israel Rank," but is much better known from the 1949 film adaptation, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which Alec Guinness blazed the trail for Mays' octuple effort.
In the show, young Monty Navarro (a winning Bryce Pinkham) discovers that his late mother was a member of the noble D'Ysquith family.
Cast out after marrying a Spanish musician, who died shortly thereafter, she raised her son in poverty. Upon discovering his heritage, Monty, spurred by both revenge and the chance to advance in the world, sets out to murder each of the eight D'Ysquiths who stand between him and an earldom.
Enter Mays ("I Am My Own Wife"), who offers a succession of delicious victims-to-be, each brought to life with striking individuality.
They include a tottering old clergyman who insists on showing Navarro his church's tower, which, inevitably, leads to a very long tumble. It's staged by director Darko Tresnjak, in his Broadway debut, with a theatrical flair that he brings to scene after scene.
There's an inspired skating sequence, with a womanizing D'Ysquith and his chorus-girl companion, in which Navarro surreptitiously cuts through the ice, and another episode involving an effete family member's being stung to death by his own bees.
That scene also has a very funny double-entendre number, "Better With a Man."
Mays additionally portrays a couple of female D'Ysquiths: a formidable, bountifully chested champion of charitable causes and a dreadful actress portraying Hedda Gabler, which means, of course, a suicide-by-pistol scene -- with real bullets substituted for the blanks.
"A Gentleman's Guide" is a black comedy, and one reason it works so well is the astute way the darkness is blended into the humor.
Since murder is intrinsically unfunny, Tresnjak distances it from our reality. There's a second stage atop the actual stage, a kind of enlarged version of a Victorian toy theater (richly designed by Alexander Dodge).
Murder in the first
Much of the action takes place there, so the murders are doubly removed and completely drained of naturalism. It allows us to laugh at the ordinarily dreadful.
Most of the homicidal high jinks are in the vibrant first act, with the shorter, more conventional, second act shifting focus to Navarro's complicated romantic life, in which he can't choose between the two women he loves: his wife (Lauren Worsham) and his mistress (Lisa O'Hare).
The ending is finessed, making it less stingingly ironic than the film's, but it still works quite well.
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is a musical wild card, a distant relative to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," perhaps, but entirely its own thing. It's fresh, and it's tremendously entertaining.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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