Regional Reviews: San Diego
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
An Old Globe world premiere co-production, with Hartford Stage, Gentleman's Guide is based on Roy Horniman's Edwardian-era novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal," a book that also served as the source material for the British film, Kind Hearts and Coronets. That delectable black comedy featured an award-winning performance by Sir Alec Guinness, playing eight different murder victims.
Guinness' feat is repeated to superlative effect by Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife). But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
As in the film, the story is told largely in flashback. Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett), a young man whose single mother hoped would rise above his station, learns after his mother's death that she was cast out by the wealthy D'Ysquith family when she married a Spaniard. Hoping for a break, Monty writes to Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr. (Mr. Mays) explaining that he is related to the family and asks for an entry-level position in the family's banking business. Receiving a cruel rejection letter in response, Monty decides to get revenge by taking over the family estate. To do so, however, eight other heirs must die first, so Monty sets out to cause their deaths.
Robert L. Freedman's book cleverly combines Dickens' knack for portraying the eccentricities of the British upper class with Oscar Wilde's love for bon mots and puns. Not only does he generate a plenitude of distinctive characters for Mr. Mays to play but he manages to give Mr. Barnett (an everyman type whose looks and manner resemble Steve Carell) a character who can win audience's affections as a murderer while wooing two women (Lisa O'Hare and Chilina Kennedy) at the same time.
Steven Lutvak's music begins somewhat serviceably but grows richer and more complex as the story progresses (it certainly helps that the excellent orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, who is Stephen Sondheim's regular collaborator). The lyrics also love to pun, as well as to instill themselves with double meanings (and yes, the song titled "Better with a Man" is exactly what you think it is, albeit draped in Edwardian manners).
The production's success rests most completely with Mr. Tresnjak's direction, however. Known to San Diego audiences for his visual style and careful attention to detail in the positioning and movement of his actors, Mr. Tresnjak easily exceeds his previous local efforts. Note, in particular, how many popular culture references Mr. Tresnjak manages to insert, starting with a dandy nod to Alfred Hitchcock that had audience members audibly gasping at the performance I saw.
He's abetted by Alexander Dodge's music hall-inspired scenic design, which features a stage within a stage (one stage for the present, the other, equipped with separate proscenium and curtains, for displaying past events). Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting design helps to keep the action focused without calling attention to itself, and Aaron Rhyne's projections are essential to creating the visual effects (Mr. Rhyne's work just keeps getting better and better). Linda Cho's costumes and Charles LaPointe's wigs look solid and in period, even though you know they had to be built for quick changes. Peggy Hickey's choreography adds much to the fun.
While, from a performance standpoint, Mr. Mays is the reason to see this show, the other leads (Mr. Barnett, Ms. O'Hare, and Ms. Kennedy) all give solid portrayals, both as actors and as singers, with Ms. Kennedy's singing topping the others for vocal prowess and interpretive strength. The quality of the ensemble is mixed, but Heather Ayres' second-act appearance as Lady Eugenia is a marvel of hauteur.
To be sure, there are some places for improvement. Almost all of the murders occur in act one and, once Mr. Mays appears, his often-manic presence is so ubiquitous, albeit in various roles, that the proceedings seem to drag when he's off stage (these scenes mostly focus on the romantic subplot where Mr. Barnett is interacting with either or both of Ms. O'Hare and Ms. Kennedy). At 90 minutes, act one feels so complete that act two promises not to top it (and doesn't, until the very last moments). A farcical visit to the D'Ysquith estate can use some tightening, too.
Despite these reservations, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder charms its way gloriously through its tale of revenge.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder through April 14, 2013, at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets (starting at $39) available by calling the box office at (619) 23-GLOBE, or at www.oldglobe.org.
The Old Globe, in association with Hartford Stage, presents A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak, lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, based on the novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman.
Directed by Darko Tresnjak with Peggy Hickey (Choreography), Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design), Linda Cho (Costume Design), Philip S. Rosenberg (Lighting Design), Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design), Aaron Rhyne (Projection Design), Charles LaPointe (Wig Design), Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrator), Mike Ruckles (Music Director), Dianne Adams McDowell and Steven Lutvak (Vocal Arrangements), Binder Casting (Casting) and Susie Cordon (Stage Manager).
The cast consists of Ken Barnett (Monty Navarro), Heather Ayers (Miss Barley, Lady Eugenia), Rachel Izen (Miss Shingle), Chilina Kennedy (Phoebe D'Ysquith), Kevin Ligon (Tour Guide, Magistrate), Jefferson Mays (The D'Ysquiths), Lisa O'Hare (Sibella Hallward), Kendal Sparks (Farmer, Guard), Price Waldman (Barber, Detective) and Catherine Walker (Sibella's Maid, Phoebe's Maid).