Jefferson Mays dies eight times in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” a musical now opened on Broadway whose story is familiar to those who have seen the 1949 Alec Guinness movie, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”; whose tone and design are familiar from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”; and whose musical style evokes “Gilbert and Sullivan.”
The musical’s influences would lead one to expect a quick-witted comedy set in Edwardian England, and A Gentleman’s Guide delivers on this expectation. Jefferson Mays’ track record as a master of multiple characters promises some jolly acting, and A Gentleman’s Guide delivers on that promise. The musical is well-designed, well-acted, and well enough plotted (with some twists that are well-crafted.) Yet for all its cleverness and wicked charm, this is an entertainment I could easily have skipped.
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When we first see Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham, finally getting his due as a leading man), he is in prison, writing his Gentleman’s Guide, a memoir. The tale he narrates begins when, having just come from his mother’s funeral, he receives a visit – from a Miss Shingle (Jane Carr.) She informs him he is the scion of the rich and prominent D’Ysquith family. The family had disinherited and cruelly shunned his mother because she had married his father, a Castilian musician (two strikes against him.) His father died when Monty was a young child, and he and his mother lived in poverty, her letters to her family requesting aid unanswered. “Only eight other relations stand between you and the current head of the family,” Miss Shingle now tells him. Monty sets out on a course of upward mobility, and revenge.
Much of the first act is taken up with Monty’s murders of the D’Ysquith clan one by one, each one, male and female, played by Jefferson Mays.
Monty’s first murder, of the buck-toothed and dim-witted Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, sets the mold for cleverness. The Reverend, who has just rejected the idea of helping Monty, is showing him the bell tower of his church and loses his balance. Monty offers his hand – then thinks better of it. The Reverend falls against a backdrop of the swirling staircase that looks like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock, until it seeps full of red, and then it’s a replica of the opening of old James Bond movies.
Monty goes on to cut a hole in the frozen river while one is ice skating, coats another’s hat with English lavender so that he is stung by a swarm of bees, and so forth.
Most of the D’Ysquiths are horrible people, which is the source of much of the humor. One of Steven Lutvak’s songs includes the lyrics:
Though privately it was said
They should all drop dead
No one thought they ever really would
But a few are decent. Monty doesn’t kill these; they die accidentally — convenient for the plot.
To relieve the monotony of the murders, there is a subplot. Monty is in love with Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), and she loves him, but she only wants somebody with wealth and a position. Meanwhile, during his killing spree, Monty meets Phoebe D’Ysquith, the sister of one of his victims, and they too fall in love.
All of this is meant to be great fun; there is certainly much that is clever in Robert L. Freedman’s book and his and Steven Lutvak’s lyrics, which officially adapt a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman (the same source for the Alec Guinness movie.) At times the play feels like an homage not just to Gilbert and Sullivan but also to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest.” One highlight is “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” with Lord Adalbert and the paintings of his D’Ysquith ancestors on the wall singing:
I don’t understand the poor.
The lives they lead of want and need,
I should think it would be a bore.
To be so debased is in terrible taste.
I don’t understand the poor.
It is hard to call this pointed satire, since the point of such lyrics seems not to take aim at current cultural and political issues, as Gilbert and Sullivan did, but simply to entertain and amuse. Targeting out-of-touch British aristocrats from the early twentieth century, as Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak do in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is not just easy. It becomes tiresome — and at times disturbing.
The low point for me was Lady Hyacinth, always looking for a cause to call her own. In order to kill her, Monty sends her off to violence-torn regions of Egypt and India, but she comes back unscathed; then he sends her to “a particularly noteworthy tribe of cannibals” in Africa. Lady Hyacinth is delighted, singing:
We’ll civilize a village in the jungle,
It can’t take long to learn their mother tongue,
Of words they have but six, And five of them are clicks,
And all of them are different words for dung
Lady’s racist ignorance and condescension become less and less amusing as the line between Lady Hyacinth’s bigotry and the theater makers’ insensitivity is uncomfortably blurred.
(It is worth nothing that the novel on which this musical is based was entitled “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” and was accused of being anti-Semitic — a charge its defenders say is unfair. Rather, the novel “explores and parodies the anti-Semitism that was rife in Edwardian England.”)
A more subtle condescension, but one more clearly that of the musical’s makers rather than its characters, has a different DY’squith singing a duet with Monty full of sniggering double-entendres, apparently based on the premise that homosexuality is hilarious:
When a man is lonely he can always find another man who’s feeling just the same.
Drink will help you get your troubles off your mind. You’ll both be blind before you know his name.
And in that rousing climax when your horse comes in, who will cheer as loudly as he can?
Only a man would see the meaning of victory.
Oh, the camaraderie!
It’s better with a man.
The 12-member cast shines under the brisk direction of Darko Tresnjak, who seems greatly attentive to detail. The orchestrations by frequent Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick stand out. But, let’s face it, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is primarily an opportunity to see Jefferson Mays in action, showing off his gifts for quick-change mimicry, aided by Linda Cho’s colorful costumes. Those who were treated to Mays’ work in such astonishing theater pieces as “I Am My Own Wife” and “Quills” and “Blood and Gifts” – works of breadth and depth and meaning – will surely be eager to see him once again in something that isn’t just clever.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
At the Walter Kerr
Book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman; music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak; based on a novel by Roy Horniman; directed by Darko Tresnjak; choreography by Peggy Hickey; sets by Alexander Dodge; costumes by Linda Cho; lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; projections by Aaron Rhyne; hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; music director, Paul Staroba; vocal arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell and Lutvak
Cast: Jefferson Mays (Asquith D’Ysquith Jr./Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith/the Rev. Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith/ Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr./Henry D’Ysquith/Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith/Maj. Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith/Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey), Bryce Pinkham (Monty Navarro), Lisa O’Hare (Sibella Hallward), Lauren Worsham (Phoebe D’Ysquith), Joanna Glushak (Newsboy/Lady Eugenia), Eddie Korbich (Actor/Mr. Gorby/Magistrate), Jeff Kready (Tom Copley/Newsboy/Actor/Guard), Roger Purnell (Chauncey), Jennifer Smith (Tour Guide/Newsboy), Price Waldman (Newsboy/Actor/Chief Inspector Pinckney), Catherine Walker (Miss Barley) and Jane Carr (Miss Shingle).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $99 to $152. Rush tickets: $35