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Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Style is of the essence in the deliciously dark, elegant and playful musical comedy about a distant heir who facilitates the demise of eight icky kin who stand in his way to a Downton Abbey-sized fortune.

Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays in “A Gentlemans Guide to Love and Murder”

Style is of the essence in the deliciously dark, elegant and playful musical comedy about a distant heir who facilitates the demise of eight icky kin who stand in his way to a Downton Abbey-sized fortune. World preem at Hartford Stage gets a rich, clever production as Darko Tresnjak directs top-drawer turns by Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays. Gorgeous, funny and melodious tuner about revenge, greed and hidden desires has bright prospects for future life — the Gotham return of “Drood” notwithstanding — and is sure to attract wish-fulfillment auds who like their fantasies executed in the very best of taste.

By Frank Rizzo

Based on the same 1907 source material that inspired the 1949 Brit film comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” Barnett (“February House”) plays the upwardly mobile outsider-heir while Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) portrays the eight members of the despicable, imperious and idiotic D’Ysquith clan. Here the fun is in the final exits, whether it’s a fall from grace, killer bees, thin ice or an actor’s improper prop. (What critic hasn’t imagined real bullets in Hedda’s gun?)

It’s all presented in the safety and comfort of exquisite artifice, with Alexander Dodge’s lush pop-up greeting card design setting the look and an impeccable ensemble striking the right comic balance between style and substance.

Mays delights in every comic creation, killing (in his own way) in numbers “I Don’t Understand the Poor” (sounding particularly relevant this election cycle), the double entendre-laden “Better With a Man” and, in drag, a virtuosic “Around the World With Lady Hyacinth.”

But this is Monty’s story, and Barnett is always in command of the center: sympathetic, charming and just wicked enough, never losing the aud’s interest or affection. That he sings like a dream also helps, and his solo “Sibella” is a haunting standout. So are Lisa O’Hare and Chilina Kennedy as Monty’s two very different paramours, with lovely and amusing songs of their own. (O’Hare’s duet with Barnett, “Inside Out,” is the take-away tune.)

Show loses some of its footing late in the second act, and recitative is stretched to its snapping point several times. But there’s plenty to impress in the well-crafted, witty and sometimes stunning score by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, greatly assisted by music director Paul Staroba, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and the six-piece pit.

Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Hartford Stage, 493 seats; $83.50 top

  • Production: A Hartford Stage presentation of a musical in two acts, with book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Choreography, Peggy Hickey.
  • Crew: Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Philip Rosenberg, sound, Dan Moses Schreier; projections, Aaron Rhyne; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music director/conductor, Paul Staroba; vocal arrangements, Dianne Adams McDowell and Lutvak, stage manager, Susie Cordon; production manager, Bryan T. Holcombe. Opened, reviewed Oct. 17, 2012. Runs through Nov. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: The D'Ysquith Family -- Jefferson Mays Montague D'Ysquith Navarro -- Ken Barnett Sibella Hallward -- Lisa O'Hare Phoebe D'Ysquith -- Chilina Kennedy Barber/Detective -- Price Waldman Miss Barley/Lady Eugenia -- Heather Ayers Miss Shingle/Tour Guide -- Rachel Izen Tom Copley/Warden -- Kendal Sparks Songs: A Warning to the Audience, You're a D'ysquith, I Don't Know What I'd Do, Foolish to Think, A Warning to Monty, I Don't Understand the Poor, Poison in My Pocket, Poor Monty, Better with a Man, Inside Out, Around the World with Lady Hyacinth, The Last One You'd Expect, Why Are All the D'ysquiths Dying?, Sibella, I've Decided to Marry You, Final Warning, Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun, Stop! Wait! What?!, That Horrible Woman.