Three cheers for Jefferson Mays the main reason, but certainly not the only excuse, to catch the world premiere musical, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, now playing at the Hartford Stage. The show is an entertaining delight made even more so by the tour de force performance of Mays. He inhabits eight members of the D’Ysquith family who, unfortunately, are unceremoniously knocked off one by one throughout the show.
The plot of the musical is based on a 1907 book by Roy Horniman and was the source material for the 1949 British black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Alec Guinness famously played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family. In A Gentlemen’s Guide the story unfolds as we are introduced to Monty Navarro, a handsomely charming young man awaiting a verdict in his sensational murder trial. How did he end up in such a predicament? We begin to find out why as the action adeptly switches to the beginning of Navarro’s tale.
Slightly downtrodden and impoverished, he discovers his recently deceased mother was a disinherited member of the D’Ysquith family. Joyful, yet reserved, he contacts his newfound relatives about his current familial status seeking acceptance, but finding nothing but rejection. Learning, off-handedly, that he is now eighth in line to become the head of the family Navarro, quite innocently at first, begins to creatively find ways to bump off the relationships in front of him for succession. Driving him onward is his need for retribution, greed, and the desire to impress the love of his life Sibella who, while loving the beguiling Navarro, desires someone more monied to settle down with.
He is variously pompous, arrogant, highfaluting, overbearing, and self-centered in his various portrayals. All of them are very funny. When he is onstage, A Gentlemen’s Guide shines and bubbles over with merriment. This is the one slight problem I have with the show. Mays is so masterful in his performances that in Act II, when almost all the D’Ysquith clan had by then met their untimely demise, the production focuses mostly on the loves of Navarro’s life, a slight letdown from the over-the-top shenanigans of Act I. But this is a small complaint of the book by Robert L. Freedman and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the musical.
In addition to Jeffrey Mays, Ken Barnett is wonderful as Monty Navarro. At first soft-spoken and unassuming he slowly blossoms into a determined and devious gentleman of the world perfectly complementing Mays’ more over-the-top characterizations. Lisa O’Hare, as Sibella Hallward, is sexy, alluring, and more than a bit of a tease as the love of Navarro’s life. She, along with the two male leads, provide a rollicking good time throughout A Gentlemen’s Guide.
The score by Freedman and Steven Lutvak actually provide tuneful, witty songs, which seems such a rarity these days with new musicals. Jeffrey Mays, while not the keenest vocalist as his co-stars, nonetheless, knows how to deliver a song with aplomb as he does with the comic numbers “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and “Better With a Man.”
Director Darko Tresnjak assuredly guides the musical through its paces. He adds a number of creative flourishes throughout the production, primarily surrounding the deaths of the D’Ysquith family (which I won’t spoil). As the Artistic Director of this award-winning regional theater I would hope he doesn’t wait 16 years until Hartford Stage produces another world premiere musical.
A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, now playing at the Hartford Stage through November 11th.