Well, here’s the perfect way to ring in the 2013 holidays: with the first feel-good serial killer musical of the season. If it seems like an unlikely feat, simply trek to the Walter Kerr Theatre for the silly, sublime, delightful and irresistible A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
The show, written by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is, of course, based on the 1907 novel The Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman. This also served as the source inspiration for the classic Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets, and since that is one of my favorite comedies, I approached this show with some trepidation. Could it be nearly as good as the film version?
Well… it’s better. And for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that new musical version combines comedy both high and low with snappy period-flavor tunes, a fabulous cast and a sense of sexy irreverence missing from the Guinness film.
Bryce Pinkham stars as Monty Navarro, a handsome and hard up young Victorian gentleman who learns that he is the eighth in line to assume the titles and holdings of the Earl of Highhurst. He is wonderfully matched by Jefferson Mays, who plays nine characters – eight of whom are murdered by Pinkham in what could only be described as Gilbert & Sullivan Go to Hell. Freedman and Lutvak provide a showcase for Mays, who portrays a motely array of English (stereo)types, including a gay beekeeper, the expected fox hunter, a buck-toothed prelate, and a do-gooding dowager. (It is this persona which perhaps best captures the show’s sense of fun. About to go to darkest Africa to help a struggling tribe, she is sure to pick up the language quickly: Of words they have but six / And five of them are clicks / And all of them are different words for dung.)
Though Mays has the showier part(s), it is Pinkham who carries the show. Handsome in an impish and insouciant way, he sings beautifully and manages to balance a sense of underhanded menace and boyish charm. It is a star-making turn. Fortunately, he is evenly matched by his two love interests, his adulterous lover (Lisa O’Hare) and his fiancée (Lauren Worsham), the sister of one of his murder victims. The slapstick highlight of the show is when the trio sings I’ve Decided to Marry You, a girl-juggling, door-slamming showstopper that harkens back to Music Hall knockabout comedy.
If the show has a weakness, it is that the tunes are terrific only in context. Though I enjoyed them immensely, none of them have stayed with me melodically. There is one high-comic turn between Pinkham and Mays (as the gay beekeeper) with a homo-erotic number called Better With a Man, but other than the fact that it was filled with droll double entendre (it ends as both men hoist a tankard with “bottoms up”), I have no other recollection of it at all. However, for knockoff Music Hall patter songs, they fit the bill.
Seven of the eight murders take place in the first act, leaving the second act to explore Monty’s love life and eventual downfall. Like all well-made pieces, characters introduced briefly in Act One return later on with important bits of plot, and even the most off-hand comment or observation provides a payoff. The show is tight, fiercely funny and precisely played. Though it is little more than a bauble, I loved it.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is deftly directed by Darko Tresnjak, who has crafted a show alternately arch, brittle, funny and naughty. Not something easily pulled off. The set, by Alexander Dodge, is a wonderful embodiment of period theater, and the choreography by Peggy Hickey is smartly staged and flawlessly executed. (No pun intended.)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, Manhattan, 212-239-6200. If you want to start your holiday season on an irreverent note, you could not do better.