Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Gentleman's Guide to a Jolly Good Time

Review:  A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Murder, you say? - Jefferson Mays is absolutely killing it as the eight doomed D'Ysquiths in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, the delightful new musical comedy that just opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is the complete antithesis of everything that has come to define the contemporary Broadway musical, and is all the better for it. Smart, funny, and deliciously tongue-in-cheek, this gem of a show offers a refreshing change of pace from the bombast currently in vogue on the Great White Way, a thinking man's comedy by a couple of Broadway newcomers that is the most entertaining book musical of the fall season.  Even those who generally think themselves too highbrow for shows where the characters break into song are likely to find themselves won over by this Gentleman's many charms.

Set in Edwardian England, A Gentleman's Guide is built from a simple premise that yields increasingly surprising dividends.  Upon his mother's death, young Monty Navarro learns that he is ninth in line to the D'Ysquith (pronounced "DIE-sqwith") family fortune, and takes it upon himself to bump off the eight self-involved nobles standing between him and his inheritance.  He hopes his increased social stature will help win over his longtime love Sibella Hallward, but along the way falls for his beautiful and pure-hearted cousin Phoebe.  And in an ingenious twist, all eight of the D'Ysquith nobles (including two lovely ladies) are portrayed by Tony-winner Jefferson Mays in a bravura performance that is sure to put the versatile actor in contention for a second statuette.  What follows is an evening of unadulterated musical comedy bliss, expertly performed by a sensational cast with some of the most beautiful voices currently on Broadway.

The score by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman is initially unassuming - the opening number is probably the worst song in the bunch, which is a shame - but quickly grows into a glorious classically-tinged score that has moments of rapturous beauty.  Lutvak and Freedman display a particular gift for counterpoint in the production's many duets, and their ability to write extended musical scenes culminates in the breathtakingly accomplished Act II trio "I've Decided to Marry You," sung by Monty and his two love interests.  The show also contains several dynamite patter songs which show off the duo's sharp and intricate lyrics, which for once are actually audible instead of being drowned out by an over-amplified sound system like in so many other shows.  The score has been masterfully orchestrated by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, who works under the charmingly novel idea that perhaps the orchestra should support the voice rather than compete with it.

Freedman's book keeps the show moving along at a steady clip, quickly establishing the various members of the D'Ysquith clan and just as quickly dispatching with them.  Despite the amount of plot he must cover, Freedman still manages to draw full and complex portraits of the three romantic leads, and the supporting characters have just enough flair to keep them easily distinguishable from one another.  The ending is probably too convoluted for its own good, but just as in the musical comedies of yore the destination isn't really the focus here.  A Gentleman's Guide is all about the journey, and it is a thoroughly entertaining one.

The cast is uniformly fantastic, starting with Jefferson Mays as the eight doomed members of the D'Ysquith family.  The mercurial Mays switches among his various personas with ease, granting each one a different set of quirks and mannerisms that make them instantly recognizable (Mays is greatly aided by Linda Cho's distinctive and gorgeous costumes).  More importantly, Mays makes all of them laugh-out-loud funny, striking a perfect balance between high and low comedy that is essential in establishing the evening's tone.  Mays is particularly memorable as the foppish Henry, who sings a hilarious duet with Monty entitled "Better with a Man," and the Tony-winner also scores as the delightfully self-involved Lady Hyacinth, who spends an entire musical number debating which starving, third world children are most worthy of her charity.

As the affably murderous Monty Navarro, Bryce Pinkham is perhaps the production's greatest discovery.  His Monty is sweet, unassuming, and undeniably British, feeling authentic and believable throughout the proceedings.  Pinkham anchors the entire show with a charming everyman quality that causes you to root for him even though he is essentially an unrepentant serial killer, and the young actor has the ability to suggest a whole host of emotions roiling just below the surface while maintaining his proper British poise (a dichotomy that is wonderfully exploited during the song "Stop! Wait! What!?!").  Pinkham also sings beautifully, with an effortless tenor that is one of the purest male voices to grace Broadway in a good long while. 

He is matched, note for note and scene for scene, by his two spectacular leading ladies.  Lisa O'Hare is ravishing as Monty's first love Sibella, making the character's nonstop rambling and concern with outward appearances endearing rather than off-putting.  O'Hare also flawlessly navigates Sibella's increasing jadedness without ever losing sight of the traits that made Monty (and the audience) fall in love with her in the first place.  Lauren Worsham is just as delightful as the eternally optimistic Phoebe D'Ysquith, radiating a winsome star quality that makes her an equally appealing match for the lovelorn Monty.  Both women are making positively smashing Broadway debuts, and when they sing together or with Pinkman (as in the aforementioned "I've Decided to Marry You") the actresses sound heavenly.

Director Darko Tresnjak deserves full credit for casting such fantastic actors and coaxing such winning performances out of them, although his staging for the show falls a bit short of the high benchmark set by the performers.  Tresnjak nails the tone and keeps the show moving, but his stage pictures are rarely very interesting to look at.  He is partially hampered by Alexander Dodge's set, which in attempting to replicate the feel of an English music hall has effectively halved the amount of available playing space for most scenes.  There's definitely more to the scenic design than initially apparent, although the scattered surprises don't really justify the concessions made in the area of actor mobility.

In the end, A Gentleman's Guide's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and the show proves itself one of the most unexpected delights of the fall season.  A refreshing change of pace from the loud, pop-influenced excess of most modern-day musicals, the show marks the auspicious Broadway debuts of both the writing team and a good portion of the highly talented cast.  It is a rare show that manages to be this entertaining while remaining intellectually stimulating, and it would be absolutely scandalous for any true theatre lover to miss it.  A killer good time is practically guaranteed (sorry, I had to).

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