Monday, October 22, 2012

Theater Review: A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Heather Ayers, Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays. Photo: Joan Marcus
A Rare Musical Premiere Offers Lighthearted Romp
By Lauren Yarger
Offering its first musical premiere since the 1996-97 season, Hartford Stage presents a tongue-in-cheek, Edwardian romp among the royals in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder starring Tony-Award-Winner and Connecticut native Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife) as eight different characters.

Mays plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith family being knocked off in zany ways by the ninth-in-line to the earldom they hold. Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett who starred in last season’s February House at Long Wharf) and his mother had been disinherited when she married his undesirable “Castilian” father, so Monty plots revenge. He wins a position in the firm of cousin Asquith D’Ysquith (Mays) and sets upon a murderous plan to eliminate each of the family members standing in his way to the title (including a couple of women, though it isn’t clear how they will inherit since royal titles seldom pass to women if men are available. You can read some info about this in the program.)

With a book by Robert L. Freedman that attempts to evoke the success of the tongue-in-cheek antics of Broadway’s The 39 Steps (Director Darko Tresnjak even borrows some of the bits like shaking clothes to simulate gusting wind), each earl bites the dust in humorous ways. (Price Walman, Rachel Izen, Heather Ayres and Kendal Sparks complete the ensemble, playing a myriad of minor characters in the tale, told in flashback form as Monty writes his memoirs in jail on the eve of his execution for murder.)

The story appears to be an adaptation of the movie “Kind Hearts & Coronets” by Robert Hamer and the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman” on which that was based. Neither of these works are credited in the program. Tresnjak does write notes there, however, about some of the process of development (some eight years) for Freedman, who also wrote lyrics, and collaborator, composer Steven Lutvak. Plot points and other details are changed (in the movie, it’s a Dukedom and the name is Chalfont) and the ways the family members meet their maker are different, so it’s not exactly the same, but star Alec Guinness plays the multiple roles there too in what is pretty much the same story. The musical, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, was developed in part at the 2006 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and is presented in association with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego which will present the show next spring.

Meanwhile, complicating Monty’s plans to take his royal seat are romances with his feeling torn between adulterous lust for the beautiful Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), who spurned him to marry a wealthy rival, and his cousin Phoebe (Chilina Kennedy, who delights with a beautiful operatic soprano). All of the action takes place on an ornate proscenium stage designed by Alexander Dodge to accommodate among other things, a beautiful garden where bees attack and a winter wonderland pond where ice-skating turns deadly (and where corny choreography by Peggy Hickey makes a smile – and the ice -- crack). Linda Cho designs costumes that aren’t quite true to the period, but which accommodate the choreography.

Certainly, there are moments of humor. Mays throws himself into each of the roles, the most memorable of which are the creepy Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith who takes a header off a tower (in a sewer-tumbling tribute to Javert in Les Mis by Dodge and projection, lighting and sound designers Aaron Rhyne, Philip Rosenberg and Dan Moses Schreier,) and Henry, a double-entendre speaking shy cousin whose duet “Better with a Man” with Monty is a hoot. He also makes us laugh as Lord Aldabert expressing his exasperation (and bringing to mind current presidential campaign themes) with “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”

Ayers shines as Lady Eugenia, the other half of a marriage-from-hell pairing with Mays as well.

The cast, musically directed by Paul Staroba, who conducts a six-member man in a pit beneath the stage (made possible by last season’s renovations), is strong vocally – though Barnett struggles at the very high end of his register.

Nice orchestrations are provided by Jonathan Tunick, but Lutvak’s repetitive sounding music is not memorable and many of the individual tunes continue way too long. The show’s more-than-two-and-a-half-hour run time could be tightened considerably with some needed trimming and elimination. Prime candidates for the cutting block are the opening number titled “A Warning to the Audience” which seemed more like a place holder for “insert opening number here” than as a set up for the show, and the second-act opener “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?,” an unnecessary recapitulation of everything that has happened so far. Lutvak and Freedman’s many-syllabled, exposition-filled lyrics are far more complicated than the plot. Trust me.

Tresjnak brings the actors out into the house a couple of times via a horse-shoe extension around the back of those seated on floor level in front of the stage. It’s a nice touch and he adds some comedic panache to staging a scene where a trapped Monty keeps both love interests from seeing each other with opposite doors.

It’s fun theater, if not exactly new. And seeing a musical at Hartford Stage is almost as likely as eight members in the line to the earldom kicking off, so enjoy it while you can through Nov. 11 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Matinee performances are Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Evening performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Stay/Play Performance at 6:30 pm Oct. 31. Tickets range $26.50-$93.50 (860) 527-5151;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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