'A Gentleman's Guide To Love and Murder' Is Wickedly Good
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” at Hartford Stage.
First Impressions: In this melodious, cheeky confection, the audience knows from the beginning not only whodunit -- it’s Monty, the all-too-distant heir to an Edwardian-era fortune offing the next-in-lines -- but also whyhedunit (love, revenge and an awesome estate that makes Downton Abbey look like a fixer-upper).
What you’re left with is the “how” and when you have the hysterically funny Jefferson Mays playing the eight odious members of the entitled (and probably titled, too) D’Ysquith family (England’s 1 percent, as it were) and Ken Barnett as the charming cad who croons some killer tunes, you have one wickedly delicious show.
But it is about a serial killer: Yes, but the playful tone is set from the beginning when the ensemble oh-so-genteelly suggests to theater-goers to leave if they may be faint of heart for this “tale of revenge and retribution.” But not to worry. It’s more “Drood” than “Sweeney.” Told in flashback by the protagonist Monty Navarro (Barnett) from his prison cell on the eve of his execution for murder, we see how his outsider status with his family and his not-so-sweet sweetheart inspired him to act on his own behalf.
Sounds like the Brit film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” The film and musical are based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel, but both versions take smart liberties to make it their own.
For instance: By making Monty sing -- and such gorgeous, waltz-happy tunes by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman -- he becomes much more understandable, sympathetic and fun. While the book’s end is amoral and the film ends with presumed justice, the musical strikes a note somewhere in between. But there’s another wondrous trick up this production’s sleeve.
Which is: Having a single actor play all eight absurdly awful family members, making makes it a tour de force for Mays and a theatrical hoot for the audience to watch. Each character is more wonderfully maliciously ridiculous than the next. It’s hard to say which soon-to-be-corpse is my favorite, but comic high points were Lord Adalbert’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” his fey Henry doubling down on the double-entendres in “Better with a Man,” and his Lady Hyacinth taking a tour of the poor in “Around the World With Lady Hyacinth.”
But for all the comic virtuosity, the center of the work is Barnett’s delicately balanced Monty. Barnett, who was so fine in last season’s “February House” at Long Wharf Theater, brings a dashing drollness, impeccable comic timing and a beautiful voice to the score, whether he is wooing in “Sibella,” or getting every quick, bright lyric (by Freedman and Luvak) in the many (too many?) patter songs.
Lisa O’Hare’s Sibella is flip, foolish and sexy, especially in “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” and “Poor Monty.” Chilina Kennedy’s Phoebe, the other love of Monty’s life, has an exquisite soprano which elevates the show’s most beguiling song, “Inside Out.”
But elevating what could be genre-general material is what this production is all about, from Darko Tresnjak’s elegant direction, Alexander Dodge’s candy-box of a set and Linda Cho’s sumptuous costumes. Backed by a six-piece band with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and music direction by Paul Staroba, many of the songs become much more than skillful pastiches. Though the tunes evoke Gilbert & Sullivan, Noel Coward and period operettas, there’s a smart, modern ear and attitude at play.
Any reservations: The scene and the song surrounding the final death doesn’t land as solidly as it should. Finale loses some steam. A few songs overstay their welcome. But just a bit.
Who will like it: Anglophiles, mystery fanatics, the hoi polloi.
Who won’t: Those with trust funds.
Anything too ghoulish: The murders are, for the most part, done discreetly and at a distance, though there is one bloody clever demise that brings some dark yucks.
For the kids: Nothing too icky though it takes a sophisticated youth to appreciate the dark wit and wordplay.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Death takes a holiday in a bright, breezy and stylish new musical.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: It seems that you can’t swing a critic without hitting a murderous musical this fall, whether you’re in the mood for “Drood” on Broadway, hankering for something Agatha in Goodspeed’s “Something’s Afoot” or just want a revenge play in the very best of taste with “Gentleman’s Guide.”
The Basics: The show runs through Nov. 11 at 50 Church St., Hartford. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $26.50 to $83.50. Performances are mostly Tuesday to Thursdays at 7:30 (except Nov. 6 to 8); Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Some Wednesdays and Saturday matinees at 2. There is a Sunday evening performance on Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The Wednesday, Oct. 31 performance is at 6:30 p.m. Check theater for exact times. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.