Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of Hartford Stage's "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder"

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. 

Enter Jeffrey Mays in the guise of all the soon-to-be fallen D’Ysquith members.   
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.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review of Goodspeed Opera House's "Something's Afoot"

When the best comment you can make about a show is the set design you know you’re in trouble.  This is the case with the murder mystery musical comedy, Something’s Afoot, the last offering of the Goodspeed Opera House’s current season.  When the show was first announced it was, to quote the King of Siam, a puzzlement.  When you think of a Goodspeed production you point to the inspired direction, a classic score, and creative dance numbers.  Most shows also have a storied history.  Something’s Afoot has none of these.  In fact, when it reached Broadway in the mid-1970’s it was a huge flop.  Maybe the reason for producing the musical is nostalgia.  The show premiered at Goodspeed 40 years ago.

Creating a murder mystery musical comedy has always been fraught with difficulties, which is why so few have been produced in Broadway history.  You can count them on one hand—Redhead, starring Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley in 1959; and Curtains, starring David Hyde Pierce in 2007.  In addition to creating a cohesive book and score, there is the added responsibility of developing a satisfying mystery to keep the audience’s interest.  There is also the extra burden of stopping the action to insert a song or big dance number, which in this genre can be achingly difficult. 

Something’s Afoot is part Agatha Christie and part the board game Clue.   All the ingredients for a murderous time are present—a creepy mansion, washed out bridge, a Miss Marple know-it-all type, the stoic butler, young romantic lovers, a retired English Colonel, as well as other archetypal mystery characters.    Slowly, one-by-one, they each meet an untimely demise.  As the bodies pile up the audience is left to guess who.  While the deaths are inventively staged, the plot by James McDonald, David Vos, and Robert Gerlach is rather boring.  A few flourishes pique your interest every so often, but overall the story is flat.  Even the denouement is unfulfilling.  The score by the aforementioned group plus Ed Linderman is uninspired and has more the feel of a college production. 

Director/Choreographer Vince Pesce has the cast dashing on and off stage, posturing on the staircase, and maybe ramping up the actors’ performances a bit too much.  Audrie Neenan, as the amateur sleuth, seems revved up on caffeine becoming almost manical in her role.   The other cast members try their best with the material provided.

In all, Something’s Afoot is something to miss.  Wait until Good News roars in next season.