ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
The style and charm that director Darko Tresnjak and his production team have lavished on the show is evident at the outset. Creating a theater-within-a-theater, scenic designer Alexander Dodge has provided a bright red proscenium bordered with classic sculpture. Inside the proscenium, most of the fast paced action takes place. A circular runway runs out and around part of the seated audience, and down front and on either side of the dazzling frame are two small playing areas. The action begins in one, where Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett), a convicted mass murderer, sits awaiting his call to the gallows. With high ego, he decides to write his memoirs so that history will know the whole story of his rise and fall.
Like a Dickens novel, his grim odyssey begins with news from the past. Monty is followed home from his mother’s funeral by one of her late, best friends, Miss Shingle (Rachel Izen) who tells him he is actually a disinherited heir to the famed D’Ysquith estate. She adds, with no little foreshadowing, "there are only eight family members between him and the title of Earl of Highhurst and the fortune that goes with it.”
One of the joys of the show is that Tony-Award winner, Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife), gets to play all the D’Ysquiths in Monty’s way. And what a comic, eclectic bunch they are: a tippling bishop, a womanizer, an over-the-top opera diva, a bumbling bee-keeper, a misguided, female “do-gooder,” a macho maniac, a bank official, and lastly an insufferable bore, the current Earl of Highhurst,. Mays plays them with such inspired delight that you almost hate to see them get killed off. No spoiler alert here, I guess you had already figured out where this was going.
And yes, observant readers, if this does sound like the English film Kind Hearts and Coronets which stared Dennis Price in the Monty role, and Alec Guiness as his eight victims. The film and this show are based on the 1907 novel, Israel Rank by John Horniman.
The score is by Steven Lutvak who, along with Robert L. Freedman, wrote the clever lyrics. Freeman gets credit for the slyly plotted book. The music is a perky trove of styles ranging from patter songs à la Gilbert and Sullivan to more romantic offerings that sound like Lerner and Lowe. They’re well sung, especially by Barnett who makes a suave, sympathetic killer and by the two ladies in Monty’s life. There’s the fortune seeking and highly sexy, Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), and the prim and proper Phoebe D’Ysquith (Chilina Kennedy), both bell tone sopranos.
If Guide. . . h as a problem, it’s one of balance. The long first act sees all but one of the victims done in with great comic flair, an occasionally wrenching sound effect, and cartoon style projections. That leaves the second act with only the romantic triangle and the dispatching of the current Earl.
Luckily the script, score and actors make the transition easily and perhaps the best number, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” signals the way. Here, Monty’s rendezvous with the married Sibella is interrupted by Phoebe who has decided to propose to him. With the ladies separated by just the doors between the rooms the song and the situation is both farcical and witty at the same time.
The colorful costumes by Linda Cho are apt and funny without stepping out of character and the period inspired choreography by Peggy Hickey adds another delightful element to the evening.
Tresnjak’s vision and direction are superb and Mays is a wonder. His death scenes are hilarious including one where he and his lady friend sink beneath the ice after Monty has done some judicious sawing. All deserve much credit,
Witty highlights: “Better With a Man” a duet with the fey Lord Henry (Mays) and an obliging Monty singing about the virtues of doing everything mano a mano, and a snarl fest of a dinner with the current Earl and his wife. Their harangue makes “Virginia Woolf” look like a Mary Tyler Moore episode.
Musical comedy purists may fault the show’s sometimes hodge-podge approach, but the audience ate it up. I was seldom without a smile myself.