Imagine how it might have played out had Downton Abbey’s distant cousin Mattthew Crawley actually wanted to inherit the Grantham estate, not just wanted it but wanted it so badly that to get it, he needed to dispose of more than half a dozen Granthams standing in the path of his succession.
I realize this is a lot to imagine, but if I ask you to do so, it’s simply to give you an idea of the world inhabited by the characters of the delicious new period musical A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder, a world of manners and money and Edwardian morality, a world in which a poor relation might have no other recourse than to bump off the competition one by one if he wanted to go from rags to riches.
The first half of its two-part World Premiere (at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage) now completed, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder has arrived at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and if critical and audience response so far is any indication, a smash Broadway run can’t be far ahead.
Based on Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank (also the source material for the 1949 British movie classic Kind Hearts And Coronets), A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder introduces us to Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett), a handsome, personable young chap whose recently deceased mother’s youthful marriage to a Castilian musician ended up getting her disowned, and who now finds himself ninth in line to inherit the D’Ysquith (the D’Y is pronounced “die”) fortune.
All he has to do to get his hands on it is bump off Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, and Major Lord Bartholmew D’Ysquith—in that order.
As film buffs will surely recall, all eight heirs were brought to black-and-white big-screen life (and death) by the one-and-only Alec Guinness, a mere thirty-five at the time and not yet a “Sir.”
Not to be outdone, A Gentleman’s Guide’s creative team (book writer/lyricist Robert L. Freedman, composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak, and director Darko Tresnjak) have assigned the octet of roles to a single actor, and who better to embody them all, alive and dead, than Jefferson Mays, who played five times that many parts in I Am My Own Wife, and won just about every theater award, including the Tony, for that acting tour de force.
Needless to say, Mays fits all eight roles to a “D” … as in D’Ysquith.
But back to our tale.
If news of his late mother’s disownment prompts young Monty to contemplate revenge, the refusal of his beautiful but mercenary sweetheart Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare) to marry a man without means sends our hero off disposing of D’Ysquith after D’Ysquith in the most entertaining of ways, particularly as aided and abetted by projection designer Aaron Rhyne’s clever animations. There’s murder by falling through thin ice (while gliding across it on skates), murder by bee stings (a whole swarm of them), and murder by prop gun (that’s supposed to have blanks in it, but doesn’t), leaving just five more murders before fortune and Sibella are Monty’s.
What our mirthful murderer hasn’t counted on is the love triangle that makes up much of Act Two’s merriment, for along the way he meets distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Chilina Kennedy), and when cousin Phoebe shows up at Monty’s doorstep to make the musical announcement “I’ve Decided To Marry You,” who should already be there but Sibella, leading to some of the funniest, most sharply timed physical comedy this side of French farce.
Naturally, for a musical comedy like A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder to work, not only must our antihero be sympathetic (which the ever so likeable Monty most certainly is, despite his pesky predilection for murder), the musical’s tone must also be bright and breezy and frothy and gay (all of which A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder most definitely is, and not just when victim number five, Henry D’Ysquith, informs Monty in delicious double-entendre, that “It’s Better With A Man.”)
Freedman and Lutvak’s lyrics are as sparkling and witty as Freedman’s book, from Lord Adalbert’s “I Don’t Understand The Poor” (“And they’re constantly turning out more”) to Lady Hyacinth’s “Around The World With Lady Hyacinth” (“Every dilettante will envy me and want a colony of lepers of her own!”), and many more in between. Lutvak’s tunes match them to perfection, the talented composer’s melodies evoking greats like Gilbert & Sullivan, Lerner & Lowe, and Stephen Sondheim. (Frequent Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick just happens to be on board as orchestrator.)
As for Mays’ costar, is there anything Barnett can’t do, including playing ten roles himself in a 99-seat L.A. production of La Ronde back in 2009 and more recently a man attempting to reconcile being both Christian and gay in Next Fall at the Geffen? And as both of those were straight plays, Barnett’s Broadway-ready pipes may come as a surprise to some, though not to this reviewer, who discovered golden-voiced Barnett in Atlanta The Musical in 2007. Long story short, if Mays is A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder’s dazzling star, Barnett is its secret weapon.
Leading ladies don’t come any more captivating than O’Hare, Best Actress Scenie winner for her title performance in Reprise’s Gigi and last year’s Scenie winner for Triple Threat Performance Of The Year as Sally Bowles in Reprise’s Cabaret, the role of Sibella now giving O’Hare the chance to show off finely-tuned comedic chops in addition to her stunning looks and exquisite soprano. And speaking of stunning looks, exquisite sopranos, and finely-turned comedic chops, Kennedy is no slouch in those departments either, her marvelous Phoebe giving love rival Sibella more than a run for her money.
Supporting roles couldn’t be brought to more vibrant life than they are by Heather Ayers (Miss Barley, Lady Eugenia), Rachel Izen (Miss Shingle), Kevin Ligon (Tour Guide, Magistrate), Kendal Sparks (Farmer, Guard), Price Waldman (Barber, Detective), and Catherine Walker (Sibella’s Maid, Phoebe’s Maid).
Choreographer Peggy Hickey has devised some jaunty dance steps for all of the above to execute, while musical director Mike Ruckles also scores top marks, as do vocal arrangers Dianne Adams McDowell and Lutvak and the production’s smashing twelve-piece pit orchestra, with Ruckles playing piano while holding the conductor’s baton.
Alexander Dodge’s scenic design cleverly inserts an Edwardian-era music hall stage inside the Old Globe’s proscenium, each new parting of its red velvet curtains revealing yet another unexpected visual treat. Linda Cho’s period costumes range from lavish gowns to plenty of funeral garb, with the many character-defining outfits she’s created for Mays being particular treats. Philip S. Rosenberg’s vivid lighting design, Dan Moses Schreier’s crisp sound design, and Charles LaPointe’s luxuriant wigs are all winners as well. Susie Cordon is stage manager and Annette Yé assistant stage manager.
Like The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels before it, don’t be surprised if A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder’s next stop is a theater on The Great White Way. And on the off chance that one is not immediately available, what’s another murder (or two or three or eight) for Monty Navarro to commit for his chance at Broadway stardom?
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
March 23, 1013
Photos: Henry DiRocco