Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2013
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder Based on a novel by Roy Horniman. Book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman. Music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Choreography by Peggy Hickey. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Projection design by Aaron Rhyne. Hair & wig design by Charles LaPointe. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Cast: Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham, with Lisa O’Hare, Lauren Worsham, Pamela Bob, Joanna Glushak, Eddie Korbich, Jeff Kready, Mark Ledbetter, Jennifer Smith, Price Waldman, Catherine Walker, and Jane Carr.
Not that you’ll necessarily condone the carnage contained in Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s show, of course. The instant it becomes clear that Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) can best advance in Edwardian London society by knocking off the eight men ahead of him in line for the D’Ysquith title and fortune, you’ll probably be a little repulsed. But once Mays, who is quickly established as playing all the D’Ysquith heirs — men and women alike — first demonstrates how the members of this ever-dwindling family meet their maker, with dyspeptic and manic throes resulting from (ahem) tumbling from a church spire, you’ll be rooting for Monty to succeed, if only to see how far Mays can and will go.
As for whether the rest of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder lives up to Mays’s example, the answer is considerably murkier. Both the writers (Freedman provided book and lyrics, Lutvak music and lyrics) and director (Darko Tresnjak) have worked tirelessly to establish an anything-goes music hall feel for the show, from a score that incorporates tributes and tweaks to the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noel Coward to the set design (by Alexander Dodge) that suggests all of Monty’s world is a stage within a footlight- and velvet curtain–equipped stage. And when raw entertainment is the goal — which it more or less always is when Mays is at the center of things — you’re able to lose yourself in the show’s abundant charms.
But there’s no escaping Monty’s essential loathsomeness, and as talented as Pinkham (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Ghost, Knickerbocker Holiday, the musical of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Delacorte this past summer) is, his onstage presence naturally leans toward the frosty and severe, which doesn’t ingratiate us to this ever-scheming man. What’s needed is someone truly beguiling, who’d believably give you the shirt off of his back while he’s stabbing a dagger in yours, and Pinkham, despite singing strongly and acting with unshakable deadpan conviction, fulfills only half of that equation.
More damaging still is the structure of the show itself. Because the majority of the D’Ysquiths depart for the grave in the first act, that leaves perilously little fun to be had with the conceit later on. After intermission the story shifts almost entirely to how Monty juggles the two women in his life: Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare), the material-girl type who unwittingly ignites his crusade in the first place, and Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham), the distant cousin who — gasps — actually likes him for who he is (or at least who she thinks he is). Freedman and Lutvak exploit this triangle to its fullest in a ridiculous but captivating operettic trio, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” but otherwise Act II is barren of both the effortless escapism that so characterizes the earlier scenes, and Mays, who rapidly transitions from unforgettable to nearly forgotten.
By all but doing away with the one thing that makes it distinctive rather than derivative, the evening ends as the downer its boisterous beginnings would not indicate is possible. Even some terrific supporting performances, from Hallward and Worsham (who are superb singers with pinpoint-precise comic timing) to Joanna Glushak (a blaring joy as the long-suffering wife of the longest-surviving D’Ysquith) to Jane Carr (a riot as the exposition-loaded friend of the Navarro family, Miss Shingle), and otherwise outstanding production components (simple but effective choreography from Peggy Hickey, sumptuous costumes from Linda Cho, good lights from Philip S. Rosenberg and projections from Aaron Rhyne) can’t compensate for the vital element you so suddenly, completely lose.
It’s at this point that you appreciate even more everything that Mays does to distinguish the D’Ysquiths on both sides of the mortal coil. He makes A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder a legitimate must-see, when otherwise it would be at best a forgettable lark. It’s just too bad that this show relies so heavily on his characters’ deaths to come fully to life.