Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through September 7, $35-$137
Not even a ridiculously loud family sitting behind us, crunching on candy and talking throughout the first act, could dampen our thorough enjoyment of the wonderful new Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. The show follows the trials and travails of one Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), who is in prison, writing his memoirs. The story then turns back to Monty’s mother’s funeral, where chatty Miss Shingle (Jane Carr) tells him that his mother was disowned by the noble D’Ysquith family when she married a man her relatives disapproved of. When Monty discovers that he is eighth in the line of succession to become earl, those men and women in between him suddenly start dropping like flies, each one played with a hearty wink and a nod by Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, Blood and Gifts) in ever-more-clever set-ups, from various lords and ladies to a dentally challenged reverend. Meanwhile, Monty can’t let go of the woman he adores, the spectacularly beautiful, self-centered, and manipulative Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare), who is engaged to marry the never-seen Lionel Holland. Social mores of Edwardian England come tumbling down as Monty nears his vengeful goal. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Gentleman’s Guide is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, the inspiration for Robert Hamer’s classic 1949 British black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Alec Guinness plays eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.)
Robert L. Freedman (books and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), with director Darko Tresnjak and scenic designer Alexander Dodge, have created a lovely little tale, part The Mystery of Edwin Drood, part Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, with some Monty Python flourishes added for good measure. Pinkham (Ghost, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) has devilish fun as Navarro, thinking up new ways to do away with his potential victims, while Mays — well, it’s often hard to figure out just how he changes from character to character so quickly, not only in wardrobe but in accent and style, a mind-boggling tour de force. Most of the action takes place on a stage within the stage, with red curtains and faces that occasionally come alive. Intentionally cheesy backdrops and playful video projection add to the fun of such numbers as “You’re a D’Ysquith,” “Poison in My Pocket,” and “The Last One You’d Expect,” while riotous slapstick propels a marvelous scene in which Monty is with Sibella but Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) unexpectedly arrives, her sights also set on Monty, who does his best trying to keep each woman from finding out about the other. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a delicious mélange of music and mayhem, with plot twists that hold surprises even for those who adore Kind Hearts and Coronets.