A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder could end up on Broadway. We’ll see. But buoyed by a rollicking, audience-intoxicating first act (Act 2 is, by comparison, so-so), this irresistible force of silliness definitely has a Great White Way about it.
The new musical comedy by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak will go as far as Jefferson Mays can carry it, and that could be all the way to New York. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a co-production with Hartford Stage, is making its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, and it’s Mays’ house to have and to hold. Playing all the members of the D’Ysquith family (male and female), from a twittering preacher to a buxom suffragette, Mays is flat-out hysterical as he quick-changes from one character to another and endows each with broad comic brilliance. This kind of duty is not unprecedented for Tony Award winner Mays, who played more than 40 roles in Doug Wright’s acclaimed I Am My Own Wife nearly a decade ago.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is based on Roy Horniman’s novel, “Israel Rank,” as was the beloved 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” (There, Alec Guinness portrayed eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.) The premise of the Edwardian-era romp is that a D’Ysquith discard named Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett) plots to kill off all eight members of the clan and become rightful earl. That would be Jefferson Mays times eight. Adding to the free-for-all but far less fun than watching Monty do away with the various D’Ysquiths is a love triangle with two lovelies (Lisa O’Hare and Chilina Kennedy) panting for the man who would be earl.
The murders, in all their sight-gag zaniness, are this show’s (directed by Darko Tresnjak) selling point. All but one victim is offed by intermission, leaving the second act feeling rather flat. There’s more emphasis on the story’s romantic foibles and, in general, less Mays, and that’s not optimal. Throughout, however, the tunes are jaunty and the lyrics delightfully fiendish.
For this show, the Globe is transformed into a stage within a stage, music hall-style, heightening Gentleman’s farcical tone and facilitating its anything-goes goings-on. The murdering is more entertaining than the lovemaking in this show, but if the goal is to eventually make a killing on Broadway, all the better.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.