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A Gentleman's Guide ... and
gentlemen in the military ...
Humor: Broad/ Accent: British

Not so gentle the touch in the rollicking A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, a new Broadway musical, or an old show about a show's troupe—Privates on Parade—transferred to CD for the first time. Both feature boisterous, over-the-top songs with British characters with no concerns about being politically correct or subtle.


Ghostlight Records

It takes people who are ever so smart to raise "silliness" to an art. The laugh-fest of a cast album of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is grandly goofy, but disciplined in rhymes and polished wit. Satisfying both are its surprises and "we-see-them-coming" patterns. Gleeful, never dull in its self-indulgence, songs and singers seem to relish the irreverence. What could be dark humor is given a light touch. Learning belatedly that he is eighth in line to an enviable British title, our hero, Monty, has more than a hand in the deaths of more than a few of the family members. Early on, competition is disposed of by drowning. Arranging a slice in the ice of oblivious skaters is not the only time Monty has his work cut out for him. He schemes. To quote Chicago, "Who says that murder's not an art?"

Bryce Pinkham plays Monty with mounting cunning, managing to make his despicable selfish goals entertaining rather than creepy. (It helps that some of those he sets off to bump off are part of a long line of nasty snobs.) As Monty's love interests, sopranos Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham score as engaging ingénues with their own agendas. Their wily ways combine superbly on either side of a wall with the man they "share" in the farcical "I've Decided to Marry You."

And Monty isn't the only one to get away with murder here. The writers splash around mischievously in puddles of politically incorrect waters, garnering laughs about not just death and dying, but portraying heartless and clueless wealthy people in their insensitivity. Satirical numbers are nailed by the cast, echoing grousing about common folks or the pecking order of the rich scrambling to stake claim to diseases as ego-boosting charity projects.

Playing all the intended victims of the entitled, titled family is Jefferson Mays. Known for I Am My Own Wife, here he is his own co-stars—male and female. And, oh, what a madcap menagerie this versatile actor trots out! Like the original Little Me where Sid Caesar played a series of broadly-drawn suitors, the conceit of having one seeming indefatigable performer do the mega-multi-tasking—and having the audience very much in on it—makes the feat more fun. While quick visual and vocal changes are, of course, more impressive in real time in live performance, the versatility required comes through on disc. The relatively few relatives and other roles played by other cast members make for a lively and slick company. (I do regret that theatre veteran Eddie Korbich doesn't get much chance to stand out.) The ensemble is an especially well-oiled machine—singing crisply in British-accented unison, playing half-hearted mourners at the latest funeral, upper-crust generic gentry, or the kind of "merry villagers" which conveniently populate musical comedy choruses.

A photo-filled booklet with all the lyrics and interspersed spoken material is helpful for ears not primed for varied British accents with words whizzing by at top speed. This is not to say that the cast is sloppy in that regard. Deliciously tongue-twisting wordplay highlights "Poison in My Pocket," at times flatteringly recalling a fleet feat worthy of Danny Kaye, past master of such things. Wackiness with rapid repetition is given needed respite with the refreshingly sweet and very melodic "Foolish to Think." But the melodies of Steven Lutvak (who shares lyricist credit with bookwriter Robert L. Freedman) are loaded with small and large swaths of delightful melodies and bounce. These come in a variety of sleek styles that come off as much more than dutiful homages to comic operettas and peppy-paced, plot-packed patter pieces and mock love songs, albeit liberally flavored with madness.

There's real originality here. And there are many touches where we note that these writers have a method to their madness, such as the deft accelerations and climaxes that don't overplay their hands ascending musical phrases to set a lady love's name to give it that extra air of worship. The cast seems to "get it" and sells it. The masterful Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are full of delightful detail and plenty of humor and spunk of their own. Despite some appropriate franticness all around, the listening experience does not become exhausting (except maybe in a good way, like an exhilarating gym workout).


Stage Door Records

Set in the late 1940s, but first presented in the late 1970s, England's plucky Privates on Parade is a serviceable musical about servicemen male-bonding and boosting each other's spirits. A recording made during that original run marches now belatedly into the CD era for the first time. It's a mixed bag and a mix of plot songs and set pieces presented as entertainment provided by a traveling British song-and-dance unit for the amusement of uniformed colleagues stationed in Asia. With the troupe putting on shows and a brave face for the troops, and commiserating among comrades, anything goes. For me, the humor runs hot and cold (mostly lukewarm), though there are lame and laugh-out-loud moments. The perky title tune is the kind of spirit-boosting, catchy forward march we want it to be. Composer Denis King borrows the traditional melody of "Greensleeves" to set "Black Velvet," one of the bawdier lyrics by Peter Nichols, from whose earlier comedy the musical is based. Winks are elbow-jabbingly broad.

This Royal Shakespeare Company production snared the British awards named for theatrical icons Laurence Olivier and Ivor Novello, with Oliviers also going to performers Nigel Hawthorne as the commanding officer and the otherwise commanding (of attention) Denis Quilley. Quilley might be awarded the Purple Heart for his high-energy star turns which include drag impressions of two thickly-accented icons, Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda, and an on-target Noël Coward. Dietrich is the climax, such as it is, of "The Movie to End Them All"; Miranda's vowel sounds are manipulated to rhyme "resist a/ Weekend with Batista" in "The Latin American Way." These undoubtedly play better with the campy costuming, suggested by one of the few enclosed photos in the insert (not a booklet). But it's the Coward parody "Could You Please Inform Us" that leaves the others in the dust. Rolling Rs with rollickingly rapid military precision (so to speak), Quilley sounds a lot like Sir Noël. The songwriting itself, with its glib satire of war and politics both as folly, sounds very Coward-esque indeed!

Emma Williams, the sole female cast member, plays a woman in the on-stage shenanigans who pairs up with one of the soldiers, soon set to become a wife and mother (not necessarily in that order). She's quite fine in the stylized Fred & Ginger songs & dance pastiche with Ian Gelder, "Better Far Than Sitting This Life Out." As far as romance, other comrades in arms are same-sex couples, with a pair of guys crooning about settling down in cozy domesticity on idyllic "Sunnyside Lane." While the would-be sweet duet is distractingly soured by one having a frog-like voice, this is in the briefer version. The sentimental song gets an immediate company reprise (and reprieve) that's twice as long.

Privates on Parade has been called into active duty time and again. An American production soon followed, as did a 1982 film, with Quilley repeating his role and co-starring John Cleese. The show was seen Off-Broadway at the Roundabout several years later and has returned to London time and again, as recently as the 2012-13 season. A very recent Australian Gay & Lesbian Festival production came to attention. (It included a nude shower scene, prompting one reviewer to remark that the title now had a double meaning.) While some of the material may seem dated and dopey and far from sensitive or sophisticated, it seems to have repeatedly found an audience, presumably prompting the CD release. More crass than high class, it does capture what we come to expect of cheery leering "boys will be boys" (or boys will bed boys) barracks humor, shrugged off shamelessly as a tactic for survival and sanity.

For those demanding just diversion and a raucous romp, Privates may please. It has some ingratiating and grin-inducing moments for sure.

- Rob Lester

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