Following in the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors, Hartford Stage’s current Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak has sent a show developed at the downtown Hartford theater to Broadway where it has been welcomed with some of the more enthusiastic reviews of the season.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” premiered a little over a year ago at Tresnjak’s home stage then was further developed at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, prior to its New York opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre on November 17 of this year. Directed by Tresnjak, the musical introduces a new composing team to Broadway in the persons of bookwriter and lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak. And in a season in which pairs of British actors such as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan (“Waiting for Godot” and “No Man’s Land”) as well as Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry (The Globe Theatre’s “Twelfth Night”) are receiving critical accolades, “Gentleman’s Guide” can boast of a tag team of terrific American actors who are nightly delighting audiences with hilarious and virtuous hijinks.
Following a recent visit to New York, the production seems more focused and tightened than in its original incarnation in Hartford. It’s clear that the creative team has worked very hard to compress the story without sacrificing any of its charm or laughter, while streamlining the segues between scenes and musical numbers so that the show easily holds audience interest. The first act seems much more lively now, while the second act’s twists and surprises remain deliciously intact.
Based on a novel by Roy Horniman that also inspired the Alec Guinness film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” this new musical, set in Edwardian England in 1909, tells the story of Monty Navarro, an impoverished young man who following the death of his mother learns that he is really a member of the D’Ysquith Family and ninth in line to inherit the title of Earl of Highhurst. It seems that the D’Ysquith’s disinherited his mother after she became pregnant and ran off with her Castillian boyfriend, Monty’s father. Rebuffed by the Family after several attempts to contact them, Monty decides to extract his revenge by eliminating all the D’Ysquiths between him and the title. Of course, this is all in good fun, particularly since the D’Ysquiths clearly deserve their respective fates.
It helps too that all of the D’Ysquiths are played by the same actor, Connecticut’s own Jefferson Mays, who repeats the role he originated a year ago. As demonstrated in his Tony-winning role in the drama “I Am My Own Wife” several seasons ago, Mays is quite adept at playing multiple characters, and since this is a musical comedy, he gets to play nine different D’Ysquith’s with ample twinkle in his eyes. He can be tidily distant and dismissive as the business scion, Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., stuffily warm as the Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr., sweetly nutty as the bee-keeping Henry D’Ysquith, or imperiously superior as the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. The distaff side of the family gets equal attention from Mays as well, inhabiting the corsets, stoles and shoes of the globe trotting do-gooder Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith and the stage costumes of cousin Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey as she prepares for a performance of “Hedda Gabler.” This is one of those performances that exemplify the term “tour de force” as Mays not only creates a specific and differentiated character for each family member but also manages some ridiculously swift costume changes that defy logic. He and Tresnjak have developed some devilish bits of stage business that enhance the audience’s experience.
There’s a new leading man playing Monty for the Broadway engagement. Bryce Pinkham is not only trim and handsome, but his quirky good looks bring a new level of depth and character to the role. He presents Monty’s trepidations quite understandably yet is also able to demonstrate Monty’s determination to proceed with his plan as well, all in a sweetly endearing way. He’s also able to portray Monty as a cad, especially as he juggles two women to whom he is hopelessly devoted, especially when he is with the other one. And as a veteran of several major musicals (“Ghost” and this summer’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at Shakespeare in the Park), Pinkham can sing, bringing a refreshing clarity to the evening’s clever lyrics.
Lisa O’Hare repeats her Hartford performance as Sibella Hallward, the sweetly scheming social climber with whom Monty is hopelessly enamored. She seems to have added much more detail and personality to her character in the period since Hartford, creating a multi-faceted portrayal that now makes her Sibella much more interesting and sympathetic. New to the production is Lauren Worsham as Monty’s distant cousin Phoebe, the innocent but determined family member who warmly welcomes Monty to the D’Ysquiths and promptly falls in love with him. She captures her character’s charm and generosity, as well as her ability to plot and connive alongside the best of her relatives.
The composing team has provided an abundant score that reflects any number of influences, from European opera to Gilbert and Sullivan to hints of Romberg, along with elaborate lyrics that are just as funny and inventive as the musical’s plot and physical comedy. Not only do the cast members take care to enunciate, it’s clear that they also relish the vocal opportunities provided by the score, as in the two dueling divas’ delicious duet, “That Horrible Woman” and in Mays’ and Pinkham’s humorously suggestive “Better with a Man.” Mays receives well-deserved laughter for his anthem to the One Percent, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” while Pinkham, Worsham and O’Hare delight with the antic “I’ve Decided To Marry You,” in which an acrobatic Monty must juggle his two inquisitive visitors who happen to show up at the same time. The six member ensemble, which at times seems much larger, handle their chorus chores especially well, particularly in the opening “Warning to the Audience” and in the second-act topper, “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” which helps to explain the appropriateness of the family name.
Alexander Dodge has re-engineered his stage within a stage set for the Kerr with its double prosceniums and Edwardian detail that disguises several hiding places and accommodates scenic changes while the action takes in the space and on a runway in front of the smaller stage. Linda Cho’s costumes capture the upper class glamour of the period, with elaborate outfits and hats for the women and a parade of formal evening and military wear for the gentlemen. Paul Staroba repeats his duties as the production’s Musical Director as does the noted orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who provides some lovely counter-melodies. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design neatly captures a variety of moods, ranging from ominous to playful, as Aaron Rhyne’s projections help zip the audience and cast to colorful locations throughout England.
It’s pleasing to see that a show that one had liked in its initial out of town engagement is now an even better show on Broadway. The addition of Pinkham allows for more nuance in Monty’s character, for example, and having two more ensemble members than in Hartford seems to double the population on the stage. Audiences are enjoying the production, at least based on the performance I attended on a recent Saturday evening. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is polished, professional and everything that one could expect from a Broadway show. Of all the new “original” musicals (not revivals or compilations), this one has garnered the best reviews. It is no doubt one of the highlights of the season.
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