And so it seems the musical comedy is not dead.
Not this season, anyway. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is the first new musical I can recall in some time that enjoys the distinction of being as musically inventive as it is at producing belly laughs. What we have here is a cleverly constructed show that pokes fun at British tropes, pays homage to Gilbert & Sullivan, evokes the spirit of the British music halls and owes a debt to the cross-dressing madness of playwright Charles Ludlam in such shows as “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
This show, nominated for 10 Tonys, began life as a partnership between two of the country’s leading regional theaters — the Old Globe and Hartford Stage. The musical is based on “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman. Horniman’s book, written in understated, dry British prose, was also the basis of one of the great Ealing Studios comedies, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a 1949 film in which Alec Guinness played eight members of a royal family who must be murdered if the protagonist is to achieve peerage rank.
This new musical is not based directly on the movie, but it borrows the novelty of a single actor playing multiple roles and runs with it. The results are spectacular, thanks to the gifted Jefferson Mays, who plays eight doomed members of the D’Ysquith family as the diabolical outlier Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) murders his way to a title.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Mays is the whole show. But he comes close as he portrays male and female D’Ysquiths who die in various farcical ways. These roles are all amusing variations on British stereotypes, played seamlessly by Mays. He never misses a beat, thanks in part to some lightning-quick costume changes.
But he’s surrounded by a superior supporting cast. Pinkham is appealing and charismatic as he plays Monty with a seemingly effortless light touch. Lisa O’Hare is deliciously glib as the inconstant Sibella. And Lauren Worsham is magnetic as the virtuous Phoebe D’Ysquith. O’Hare and Worsham possess phenomenal voices and both sound classically trained.
The writing is credited to Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), and each achieve a high level of wit in both the spoken dialogue and the lyrics. Director Darko Tresnjak and his designers have sculpted the production as a glorification of theatrical artifice from an earlier time. Most of the action takes place within an antique proscenium that evokes Edwardian aesthetics, and some of the visual gags — actors gliding left to right upstage on wheels, for example — give a wink to 19th-century stagecraft.
At the same time, the creative team takes full advantage of present-day technology, particularly in the use of Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which allow for such things as the dotty Rev. D’Ysquith falling to his death down a spiral staircase.
The Ealing film, which I’ve long admired, adopted in both its voice-over narration and dialogue an understated tone that maximized wit. This show takes a different approach, which is bigger, broader, noisier and overtly ridiculous. Both, it seems, are valid ways to go. All I know is I found myself laughing out loud. A lot.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.