The more years I spend sidelining as a critic, the more I find myself—when in the presence of unquestionable quality in the same package as a reason for varying perspectives—reluctant to decide for the reader based on my personal taste. And the new musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder falls squarely into that category.
A mordantly humorous thriller, officially based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, a 1907 novel by British writer Roy Horniman, and unofficially based on the black comedy film adaptation Kind Hearts and Coronets, tells the tale of Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) who by rights should be heir to a dukedom and family fortune as a full-blooded member of the D’Ysquith family, but due to the illegitimacy of his birth (as his name attests, his father is of Italian lineage), has been disenfranchised. By murdering the first person in the family whose existence blocks his birthright, he quickly finds himself in the line of succession, whereupon he goes about systematically and creatively dispatching the seven remaining in his way. The victims, all variations of lofty, upper crustiness are all played by one actor (Jefferson Mays). (It is in the nature of our anti-heroes half-breed ancestry and the casting of one actor to play all victims—uncopyrightable notions—that the musical tips its hat to the film.) Aside from the draw of wealth and position on their own terms, Monty’s secondary motivation is to win the heart and body of Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare) who is fond, but unable to commit to a man with no prospects. As his prospects improve, so the level of her interest rises, but the widow of an early victim, Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) becomes her romantic rival.
There has been much praise lavished upon the show for the high-craft execution of its libretto by Robert L. Freedman, its music by Steven Lutvak, and its lyrics, by Freedman and Lutvak in tandem. And the praise is well deserved. In keeping with its era and place, the shows construction is unassailably impeccable, and its score a model of how and when song should take over from dialogue and carry the story forward. Indeed, there hasn’t been a new musical on Broadway quite so impeccably put together in quite some time. Quite.
For some, that’s enough to inspire emphatic enthusiasm, and justifiably.
But there’s another camp, and I’m afraid I personally fall into it, that feels at arm’s length from the show. The score so assiduously roots its music to its genteel environment that, to my ear, it rarely transcends stylistic emulation, and likewise rarely has the muscularity that affects the viscera and creates active involvement rather than just amused and admiring observation. And the direction by Darko Trensjak, though highly inventive and often brilliantly theatrical in its ability to use cheap SFX to seem as evocative as the budget spent on a Peter Jackson film, strikes me as a leeetle bit on the pushy side of comedy. Not in that anti-humorous way of certain directors who really don’t understand what funny is about and think that carrying on is hysterical when it’s really only hysteria; but in the way of expending just enough extra energy to make you aware of the effort, which keeps palpably threatening to uproot verisimilitude. It’s the most minor over-clocking, but the difference it makes will be major to some. And the multi-cast Mr. Mays bears the weight of it; though his innate comedic style seems to encourage it as well. (The lead women, also including Jane Carr as an old friend of Monty’s less noble family, seem blissfully unaffected by this.)
All that being said, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is absolutely to be seen, and in particular if you thrive on musical theatre; this is one of those evenings for which seeing what all the hoopla is about is a requirement in itself. But don’t attend with your expectations flag flying high. Go just to see what you’ll see. And let it hit you how it hits you.
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