Some of the best jokes in comedy come in threes; however, in the case of "A Gentlemen's Guide To Love And Murder," it comes in eight. The new musical that opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Sunday night refines macabre with a wink, then another, and several more.
Based on the 1907 Edwardian novel "Israel Rank" and the 1949 film "Kind Hearts And Coronets," the musical follows Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), a penniless bachelor that has just learned he is the long-lost member of the noble D'Ysquith family, and eighth in line for the title of Earl of Highhurst. But when the family rejects his claim, the ambitious Monty sets out to eliminate each of the eight heirs, all brilliantly played by Jefferson Mays.
Mr. Mays, who won a Tony in 2004 for playing some forty roles in the one-man-show "I Am My Own Wife," gives a performance that is a real tour de force, bringing a completely different life and charm to each of his characters. Whether it's as a reverend, a posh Lord, a boisterous Lady, or any other reincarnation, Mr. Mays makes the best of their last moments and gives them a sidesplitting sendoff. But that's not to say he's the only lure of the production.
No comedic scene can hit its mark without a strong straight man, and Mr. Pinkham's presence anchors down nearly every scene of the musical -- most notably, the song "Better With A Man." But in comparison, Mr. Pinkham's timing is stronger than his tuning. There are a number of moments early in Act I, just before the killing begins, when the only thing being murdered is the key. However, it never lasts long nor does it get in the way of the jokes.
The book (Robert L. Freedman,) music (Steven Lutvak) and lyrics (Mr. Freedman and Mr. Lutvak) seem to be a hybrid of Monty Python -- perhaps, that's how the character Monty got his name -- and Stephen Sondheim. The orchestrations by long-time Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick only further that sentiment. While the show lacks a tune that audiences will hum as they're exiting the theatre, the music and lyrics perfectly compliment the book, and provide over two hours of non-stop laughs.
The show has a solid first act, tackling seven of the eight murders with brevity, but the second act is threatened with derailment as love enters the picture. During the opening lines of the musical, Monty changes the title of his memoir from "A Gentlemen's Guide To Murder" to "A Gentlemen's Guide To Love And Murder." In a similar way, "love" seems to be an afterthought in the play. While the farcical number "I've Decided To Marry You" is one of the funniest in the show, the love triangle between Monty, his mistress Sibella Hallward (Lisa O'Hare,) and his fiancée Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) is never as compelling as the musical's darker moments.
For the most part, the appeal of "A Gentlemen's Guide To Love And Murder" comes out of its simplicity. The director, Broadway newcomer Darko Tresnjak, makes sure the stage-within-a stage set, the use of background projection, and basic lighting all serve an important purpose and never upstage the actors. While more and more Broadway theaters are holding jukebox musicals or musical adaptations of hit-movies, the Walter Kerr Theatre has something that is fresh, hysterical, and bloody brilliant.
A Gentlemen's Guide To Love And Murder
At the Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W 48th St.
New York, NY 10036
Run Time: Two hours 20 minutes