Overkill has seldom been more enjoyable than in A Gentleman?s Guide to Love and Murder, a thoroughly delightful and uproarious new Broadway musical about an Edwardian serial killer who could be a well-heeled cousin of Sweeney Todd by way of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves. His name is Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham, blessed with a crystalline tenor and the looks of a young Jude Law) and he’ll stop at nothing to avenge his late mother, disinherited by a titled British family for falling in love with the wrong sort. ”My father was ‘Castilian,’ he explains at one point. ”And worse, a musician.”
All that stands in the way of his claim to Highhurst Castle are eight members of the D’Ysquith clan (pronounced, conveniently, to sound like ”dies quick”). Each is played, with jaw-dropping skill and ever-increasing daffiness, by Jefferson Mays. The enviably versatile actor not only outdoes his Tony-winning performance (also in multiple roles) in 2003’s I Am My Own Wife, but he outdoes himself over the course of the evening. Certainly, he seems to relish composer Steven Lutvak?s hilarious songs (with lyrics by Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman) – from snooty Lord Adalbert’s ”I Don?t Understand the Poor” (”To be so debased / Is in terrible taste”) to Lady Hyacinth’s ode to competitive philanthropy (”And every dilettante / Will envy me and want / A colony of lepers of her own”).
With the Dexterous Monty on the case, each D’Ysquith meets an end in a manner (or manor) befitting his or her unique awfulness. (No spoilers here.) Director Darko Tresnjak stages each crime with ingenious wit, aided by Alexander Dodge’s simple but clever set design which evokes an early-20th-century vaudeville theater, complete with footlights. Monty must also contend with dueling love interests – the vain and avaricious Sibella (Lisa O’Hare) and the naïve D’Ysquith cousin Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), the latter safely following him in the line of succession. The three get a door-slamming bedroom-farce of a trio, ”I’ve Decided to Marry You,” that is a delirious second-act showstopper.
The story, based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, may sound familiar. It also inspired the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness as all of the ill-fated D’Ysquiths. But Freedman’s script packs plenty of surprises, including an ending that departs significantly from the film’s.
This production’s secret weapon isn’t the poison in Monty’s pocket but Lutvak’s jaunty score, which sounds both fresh and period-perfect with its echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan and classic British music hall. And the lyrics are as gut-bustingly clever as anything in The Book of Mormon. The second act opens with ”Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying,” sung by a chorus of mourners: ”I’m utterly exhausted keeping track / And most of all, I’m sick of wearing black.”
No one is likely to get sick of the black comedy in A Gentleman’s Guide, which remains winsome and charming despite an alarming surfeit of devious and devilish characters. Quite simply, it’s a bloody good time. A