This delightful and zany new Broadway musical is 'Downton Abbey', but devilish. It brings out all the worst traits of human nature, but in a manner that's fun loving and forgivable, even if irreverent.
If Chicago is the show that made love, murder, and greed sexy through its infamous female lead, Roxy Hart, she now has a male counterpart with whom to share the Great White Way, and who has made those same traits classy. Meet Monty Navarro, a man who has just discovered that he's actually part of the D’Ysquith family and could one day possess the title of Earl of Highhurst. There's only one thing that stands in his way… well, eight things, actually: his other relatives that are in line before him as heir to the title. This wildly absurd plot is the basis for the new Broadway musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.
While set in the sophisticated world of Victorian England, this delightful and zany tale is anything but pretentious. It’s Downton Abbey, but devilish. Monty, played by Bryce Pinkham (Ghost, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), is desperately in love with the already married Sibella Hallward. She refuses to leave her husband until Monty can prove he might one day be able to make something of himself. The possibility of gaining the title of Earl is Monty’s lucky break – even providential, he concludes. Surely the slaying of his eight relatives can be forgiven as mere casualties in his conquest of Sibella. Let’s also not forget the sweet Phoebe, Monty’s fiancée with whom he’s engaged to be married. But not to worry – if he manages to kill off eight relatives, he'll easily find a way to deal with her.
And if that plot line doesn’t sound insane enough, let me add one final twist: all eight relatives – male and female – are played by one actor, Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man). Mays delivers one of the most exhausting and demanding performances that one is likely see on stage this season (and that's quite an accomplishment given there’s a revival of Macbeth and a return of Billy Crystal’s one-man show, 700 Sundays on the line up). Not only are these eight characters radically different from one another, but they also appear in rapid-fire succession, providing Mays little time to catch his breath between costume and character changes. His performance will undoubtedly go down in the record books as one of the most memorable stage triumphs to date.
What is perhaps equally impressive, however, is that Bryce Pinkham as Monty holds his own against Mays, with his wonderfully sly facial expressions and perfectly timed humor. There probably hasn’t been a more entertaining duo on Broadway since Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick starred together in the 2001 production of The Producers. By all accounts, it’s a welcome and long overdue match.
The rest of this ensemble cast is well suited for this production and offer what can only be described as taxing, physical performances. Robert Freedman’s script is clever, and his lyrics – along with Steven Lutvak’s music – is serviceable, but the real genius of this production lies with its actors and their characters.
Darko Tresnjak’s skillful direction allows this production to maximize every bit of comedy, both physical and verbal. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design transforms what otherwise would be a large and hollow Broadway stage into an intimate affair. Regardless of where one might be seated, you’re likely to feel as if you might very well be Monty’s next victim.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder brings out all the worst traits of human nature, but in a manner that's fun loving and forgivable, even if irreverent. It’s also a show that offers talent that is as bold as the tale it’s telling. This seriously fun show is not to be missed – that is unless you’re a member of the D’Ysquith clan – then it may just do you in. That is, unless, the laughter doesn’t kill you first.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder opened on November 17th and is playing an open-ended run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Book and lyrics by Robert Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Starring Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.