- Connecticut Critic
We are in a new golden age of Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda has written a “Les Miserables” for the 21st century that smartly weaves rap, R&B and pop into the fabric of American musical theater, stirring scores like “Next To Normal” or “Fun Home” prove that rock musicals can tackle dramatic, timely stories and shows like “Curious Incident” are using technology better than ever before. Given the pyrotechnics, electric guitars and rap battles that have recently become staples on Broadway, a show like “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” feels refreshingly old fashioned. It’s closer to Gilbert & Sullivan or a musicalized Oscar Wilde than a post-millennium creation, yet it never feels like re-watching an old black and white musical on television or a flimsy revival of a tired song-and-dance chestnut (the kind of work all too often seen at places like Goodspeed Opera House). Yes, the bones of “Gentleman’s Guide” are steeped in century-old tradition but it is so relentlessly witty and so cheerily entertaining that it never reads as even remotely tired.
“A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder,” which I’ll henceforth refer to as “GGLAM” for the sake of this article’s word count, premiered in Hartford, Connecticut in 2012. After a successful run there, it transferred to Broadway and ran for nine months, raking up a Best Musical Tony win along the way. On October 25th through the 30th, “GGLAM” returned to Hartford on a leg of its national tour, where I caught it for the first time.
This sprightly and silly musical, with music by Steven Lutvak, book by Robert L. Freedman and lyrics by both, concerns working-class Londoner Monty Navarro (a crystal-clear voiced Kevin Massey, whose charisma and impishness brought to mind Santino Fontana). After his mother’s death, Monty learns he is a descendent of the legendary D'Ysquith family, an aristocratic ancestral line that leads to the Earl of Highhurst. You see, Monty’s mother married a poor Spaniard for love, which lost her a place on the family tree. To regain his destined piece of the D'Ysquith fortune (and to impress his vain sweetheart Sibella, played by a charming Kristen Beth Williams), Monty decides to naively knock off the relatives who stand in his path to Highhurst Castle.
In a bit of inspired absurdity, all eight members of the D'Ysquith family are played by one actor. At my performance, that actor was understudy Ben Roseberry (covering for John Rapson) whose high energy, mannered and hilarious performance made you completely forget he wasn’t the original headliner. Switching costumes and personas at lightening speed, Roseberry portrayed a pompous nobleman, a dotty priest, an insufferable suffragette and a country squire who is gay in both the 20th and 21st century meaning of the word. That relative’s solo, “Better With A Man,” is a “GGLAM” highlight and showcases the songwriting team at their naughtiest and most clever.
The first act unfurls with manic energy as Monty tracks down and then exterminates various D'Ysquiths in a succession of amusing and increasing ludicrous sketches. This section not just allows Roseberry to display his many talents but is a playground for director Darko Tresnjak to sprinkle in dozens of inspired comedic flourishes (greatly aided by Alexander Dodge’s creative and tricked out music hall proscenium set and Aaron Rhyne’s diverse projections). So it’s a bit of a letdown when the curtain falls on act one and most of the D'Ysquiths have already died, in decidedly G-rated ways, I might add.
With the comic insanity of Roseberry’s rotating identities gone, act two is never quite able to recapture the frenzied liveliness that made the first half so memorable while the paper-thin characters and tuneful-but-bland score begin to become a concern. It doesn’t totally derail “GGLAM,” but I do wonder if the show would have worked better as a tight, 90-minute one-act.
“A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder” is proud fluff, a fully entertaining old-school divertissement that is crispy and creatively directed and delivered by a very gifted cast (including a sparkling Kristen Hahn and a droll Jennifer Smith). Could I complain that the patter song heavy score leans too much on Gilbert & Sullivan and Lerner & Loewe, failing to really deliver a hummable melody that doesn’t feel like pure pastiche? Sure. Could I mention that “GGLAM” is more witty and amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, lacking the flat-out hilarity of something like “The Book Of Mormon?” I definitely could. But I don’t think I stopped smiling for the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. While sometimes I crave more nourishing theater, “Gentleman’s Guide” is a sweet, airy confection that fully satisfied me on a certain rainy Sunday in October. On that merit, it was a real bloody success.
Photo: Joan Marcus