A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Through Nov. 11, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Frothy, outrageous, and expertly performed, this brand new musical updates the familiar tropes of Edwardian melodrama and music hall with wicked contemporary wit based in double entendre and the willingness to be politically incorrect. Is it edifying? Nah. Is it fun? Yup.
Our "hero" is a social-climbing orphan who unexpectedly discovers he's in line for an earldom, with an estate attached. Trouble is, he's ninth in line. But he's a clever chap, and a charmer, and tumbles to the fact that he can contrive the demise of all who stand in his way.The pleasures here are in the expert delivery of comic situations, quirky characters, and musical treats.
The strong ensemble is led by the deservedly renowned Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony for his work originating all the characters in I Am My Own Wife some seasons back on Broadway. Mays plays the D'Ysquith family — all nine of them, in a bouquet of gender-variant types — aided by a series of quick costume changes that render him nearly unrecognizable, role to role. He's a master of physical acting, and here we get to see him show off everything from his extraordinary balance to music hall dance moves to ventriloquizing a fox pelt.
Musically, there are a couple of stand-out voices, notably the delightful Ken Barnett — a Wesleyan alum — in the lead role of Monty Navarro, who wields a honeyed baritone with impeccable, natural phrasing and a delicious falsetto. The music is lively, and the lyrics are clever. Live instrumentalists back the accomplished singers.
The set provides an inset jewel-box of a little Edwardian theater surrounded and surmounted by narrow acting spaces. The costumes are a treat: exaggerated parodies based in period silhouettes.
The show runs a full two-and-a-half hours including one intermission, and I found the second act less compelling than the first. This is largely because we've already seen almost all of Mays' multiple characters knocked off, and so the pace slows down some and the wacky factor dims.
Inventing new musicals is a time-intensive and expensive project. This one has roots in a partnership forged 31 years ago, and has been in serious development for the last eight years. Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage's artistic director, came on board five years back. Here's hoping this production is able to transfer to other venues and make its way into the contemporary canon, not because it offers any wisdom, but just for the sake of fun and flair.