Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review of "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway

This review is adapted from my critique during the show’s premiere at Hartford Stage in October 2012.

Pity the D’Ysquith family.  One by one they are being, unceremoniously, knocked off during the thoroughly enjoyable new musical, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.  Transferring to Broadway after its world premiere engagement at the Hartford Stage last year, the musical is smart, funny, and entertaining.  There are many aspects of the production to praise with primary honors going to the tour de force performance of actor Jefferson Mays.  He inhabits all eight members of the D’Ysquith family who are creatively and precipitously disposed of throughout the show.

The production itself, housed in what could be viewed as an elegant Victorian dollhouse of a set, lovingly designed by Alexander Dodge, is not the big razzmatazz musical typically inhabiting the Broadway stage.  A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder is more understated, smaller in scale, but nonetheless wholly satisfying.

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 ingeniously 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, Bryce Pinkham 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.  The well-crafted ballads are beautifully sung and the comic numbers perfectly executed.  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.”

Having directed the show in Hartford, Director Darko Tresnjak, in his first Broadway outing, assuredly guides the musical through its paces.   He knows the musical well, adding a number of creative flourishes throughout the production, primarily surrounding the deaths of the D’Ysquith family (which I won’t spoil).   Tresnjak keeps the show lighthearted and sprightly.

A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, delivering hilarity and mayhem at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

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