How very daring — a witty musical about a serial killer that Stephen Sondheim didn’t write. Fashioned from the ingeniously absurd plot of the novel that inspired the classic Alec Guinness film comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” proves an ideal vehicle for the versatile talents of Jefferson Mays. Reveling in his multiple roles, Mays plays eight wacky members of a noble family doomed to die at the hands of a distant heir who covets the family title and fortune. The English music hall format is the perfect performance style for this adorably wicked show.
Visually, this stylish spoof of Edwardian manners and (lack of) morals mocks its own high style, as defined by class-act helmer Darko Tresnjak, a.d. of Hartford Stage, where the show preemed. Tucked inside the gaudy frame of an English music hall stage, Alexander Dodge’s colorful set looks like a dollhouse inhabited by living dolls, gorgeously gowned by Linda Cho.
The most elaborate setting is of Highhurst Castle, ancestral home of the aristocratic and filthy rich D’Ysquith family. Both the house and its title are currently held by the eighth earl of the manor, the insufferably pompous Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith (Mays), whose sense of entitlement is scathingly satirized in “I Don’t Understand the Poor.” “The lives they lead / Of want and need / I should think it would be a bore,” he grumbles, in a Henry Higgins-inspired tantrum about the vulgar tourists who leave their grubby fingerprints all over the suits of armor. “To be so debased / Is in terrible taste,” he declares, offering a sample of the withering humor of Robert L. Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s smart lyrics.
Unbeknownst to the addlebrained Adalbert, his title and all his holdings are coveted by the impoverished Monty Navarro (Bruce Pinkham), a distant, unacknowledged heir who has embarked on a killing spree to remove the eight relatives who stand between him and his prize. Adalbert will eventually (and sensationally) get his comeuppance, but not until the second act.
Until then, Monty takes every opportunity to justify his murderous actions and ingratiate himself with the audience — no mean feat for a multiple murderer, but adroitly executed by the almost indecently charming Pinkham (who survived “Ghost” without a blemish). Thesp’s pleasing voice and comedic savvy are terrific assets when he’s wooing two women, beautifully sung by lovely Lauren Worsham and sexy-as-hell Lisa O’Hare, in “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” a song staged in the highest of high style by helmer Tresnjak with assistance from choreographer Peggy Hickey.
But before Monty gets his whack at Lord D’Ysquith he’s got to eliminate seven other heirs, all of them played with serene comic cruelty by the endlessly inventive Mays. Auds will surely pick their favorites among his cleverly caricatured aristocrats who topple from church towers, fall through the ice, are stung by bees and otherwise meet their maker. But who could resist the loathesome likes of Lady Hyacinth, a dedicated philanthropist who, having found her ministrations rejected by “the dear, disgusting lepers” of India, has turned her attention to civilizing a primitive jungle tribe in Africa. She’ll have no trouble picking up their language, she reasons, in one viciously funny lyric: “Of words they have but six / And five of them are clicks / And all of them are different words for dung.”
Although the naughty lyrics are the sweetest of the show’s bitter treats, Steven Lutvak’s music invites its own independent smiles. Buffed to a shine by Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and played by a splendid pit orchestra, these lethal ditties are a pastiche of everything the English musical theater holds dear, from Noel Coward to Gilbert and Sullivan.
But the show’s heart is in the old music halls, where the jokes were vulgar, the songs were upbeat, the lyrics were in bad taste, and the thespians often got away with … well, murder.