a theatre, film & pop culture review
What do you get when you cross The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Gilbert & Sullivan and a dash of Sweeney Todd-worship? Why, this season’s musical comedy hit, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, of course. But that’s just the tip-of-the-inspiration iceberg: Composer Steven Lutvak and book writer Robert L. Freedman’s musical also references Monty Python, Downton Abbey, Noël Coward and a host of other musical, theatrical and comedic sources, though a line must be drawn at a comparison to Oscar Wilde (which some critics have made) — any Wildean musical would be much cleverer than the one currently delighting audiences on the Great White Way.
That’s not to say that Gentleman’s Guide isn’t enjoyable. It is. Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank, which was adapted into the classic 1947 comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets starring the incomparable Alec Guinness, Guide follows Monty Navarro, a disinherited relative of the über-wealthy and powerful D’Ysquith family, as he, after learning he’s ninth in line to inherit the earldom, sets out to secure his financial future by, well, eliminating those familial obstacles.
As the murderous Monty, Bryce Pinkham (one of the best parts of Ghost the Musical, remember?) is boyishly charming, exuding a dashingly desperate devil-may-care attitude when it comes to his victims — and his lady loves — and he does it all in superb voice. As Monty’s romantic interests, Lauren Worsham is in lovely voice as the delicate and pristine Phoebe D’Ysquith, and Jane Carr plays the social-climbing Miss Shingle with a sharply-tuned sense of humor and an even sharper wardrobe (the gorgeously detailed Victorian costumes are by Linda Cho). The three share a particularly splendid scene in which Monty jumps betwixt two rooms as he juggles the women’s affections and declares his own for each of them.
The star of the show, however, is Jefferson Mays (of I Am My Own Wife fame) — or should I say his dressers are the stars? Mays portrays all eight D’Ysquith victims through a dazzling assortment of costume changes that surely requires the assistance of a least a half dozen wardrobe assistants. The proof of his efforts lies in his shiny forehead and ruddy cheeks: Mays is working it, and working it hard, and it largely pays off. His bookend victims are his best: the daffy priest who plunges to a dizzying death and Lord Adalbert, the pompous grump who preposterously carts around a fox hide for old-fashioned-crazy effect. Mays’s stamina and spirited humor are admirable, but it feels more like role playing than character building.
But Mays isn’t really to blame, nor is director Darko Tresnjak who nimbly pulls off — with the help of Alexander Dodge’s playful Victorian doll-house-like theatre set — every crazy visual and aural antic in Freedman’s book, indulging both his low and high brow instincts, into a seamless weave of spastic, sprightly-paced shenanigans. Tresnjak smartly guides his game cast to play to the hilt of the comedy, which, frankly is limited and repetitive, nearly evaporating entirely each time the orchestra kicks in. Opening with an homage to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (“A Warning to the Audience” is no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”), Lutvak’s pastiche score nods to every contemporary (and not) composer and then some. There’s not an ounce of originality here, but that could be forgiven if the songs weren’t so utterly forgettable. While Lutvak knows his musical history and it’s a pleasure to hear a more classically-leaning score, A Gentleman’s Guide might’ve played faster and funnier as a music-less farce.