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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Hartford Stage

Also see Fred's review of Satchmo at the Waldorf

A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder
Jefferson Mays and Ken Barnett
Hartford Stage brings a skillfully executed, wacky world premiere musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, to anyone who desires an evening of raucous laughter. Robert L. Freedman fashioned the book for the show by looking backward toward the 1907 British novel "Israel Rank" by Roy Horniman. Steven Lutvak, who has won Academy, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Awards provides music. Freedman and Lutvak combine on the lively lyrics. This production will move to The Old Globe Theater in San Diego next spring.

Darko Tresnjak, the inventive leader at Hartford Stage, directs, and this is one creative and management challenge. Alexander Dodge, designing, provides imaginative stages, and the actors move from a proscenium and further forward. This allows them to approach and, at times, encircle a portion of the audience. The plentiful action, great send-up stuff, takes place in London in 1909 as Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett) hopes to seize an opportunity to become an English earl by successively knocking off a number of D'Ysquiths. Monty is, by his mother, distantly related to the upper-crust sector but this is something of a stretch. Navarro has, at the outset of the play, been accused of committing crimes, so the story is told by flashing backward in time.

Barnett, who was winning in the production of February House last year at Yale Rep, sings and charms his way, in most delicious mode, as an aspiring gentleman. He has love interests, too. These include blonde, sexy Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) and a member of the family, pretty Phoebe D'Ysquith (Chilina Kennedy). The latter, during the second act, announces that she intends to marry Monty—who has just had a dalliance with Sibella. Some scene!

Yes, we feel very much transported to territory just reminiscent enough (with a delectable jolt of musical comedy) of television's "Downton Abbey." The Hartford Stage show begins with Navarro and, naturally, focuses upon every person who will die. Each victim is played by the brilliantly deft, Tony Award winning Jefferson Mays. He embodies one D'Ysquith, then the next, and so on. They are not particularly sympathetic souls, since this array includes someone who is simply cruel to tenants. Another dies of a heart attack. Someone else is crushed while lifting a barbell. All the while, Mays moves from one ludicrous situation and outfit (thanks to costumer Linda Cho) to the next.

A first hour highlight is surely "Better With a Man," a duet (catch the neat harmony) featuring Barnett and Mays. "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun," featuring Mays, is a second act choice. The creative team, led by Tresnjak and assisted through choreography by Peggy Hickey, keeps it all moving briskly. Never a dull moment but many an ironic and/or ludicrous one.

With a hidden pit orchestra including six musicians (led by music director Paul Staroba) adding to the proceedings, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is immediate, tuneful, and filled with clever witticisms. Barnett portrays Monty as a leading man difficult to dislike. He is a good-looking, sweet-singing individual who must be on stage for almost the entire time. From Monty's perspective, his mother was not treated kindly by this very British family and he will avenge that. Should he triumph, there is the metaphorical pot of gold which he will grab. He doesn't look like the type of guy who might poison someone, does he?

Mays is the chameleon of the piece, changing wardrobe, adopting and adapting to new characters on the fly. He is droll, he is unseemly, he is ridiculous—whatever it takes.

This show must have presented many a hurdle as it took shape: varied elements to facilitate and bring together. The result: a pleasurable evening which is fine-tuned, fluent, and ever so playful.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder continues at Hartford Stage through November 11th. For tickets, visit hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.


Photo: Joan Marcus


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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