Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Heather Ayers, Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays.
Photos by Henry DiRocco

D’Ysquiths are dropping like flies in The Old Globe’s world premiere musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and each time one dies, Monty Navarro moves one step closer to becoming the ninth Earl of Highhurst.

Eight of them meet their hilarious demise after seemingly innocuous encounters with Monty; a Beekeeper, an Actress, a Bodybuilder, a Social Reformer, a Dandy, a Banker, a Parson, and finally, the fox-hunting, spoiled-rotten reigning Earl. Not bad for a nephew with no means whose deceased mother was disinherited for marrying a Castilian.

Darko Tresnjak directs this guilty pleasure of a musical, based on Roy Hornimans novel “Israel Rank, and written by bookwriter Robert L. Freedman & composer Steven Lutvak (lyrics by both men) in a manner befitting its British music hall roots. He skillfully fits the pieces of this “he-dunit” together by revealing little bits of information strategically placed for maximum effect, much like the colorful pop-up images of an Edwardian greeting card. 

Each of Lutvak and Freedman’s songs is its own tight little package of comic efficiency, filled with Gilbert & Sullivan-esque patter and lyrics that sparkle with invention. Never has a pair made murder seem so appealing and never has a cast so fully embraced the absurdity of its task.

Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays

The members of the D’Ysquith (DIE-skwith) clan are all played by Jefferson Mays, the Tony Award-winning star of I Am My Own Wife, who gives deliciously idiosyncratic life (and death) to each one. He is a master at highlighting their quirks in subtle ways, eliciting barrels of laughter from a delighted audience when they realize that it’s him in each new disguise. 

Some sing, like Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, who delivers a comical musing on the state of the lower class in “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” and Henry, the impishly, childlike beekeeper whose double entendre-filled number “Better with a Man” is one of the best of the bunch. “Poison in my Pocket,” quietly springs up behind a very funny ice-skating sequence and is reprised later at another wholly appropriate and quite hilarious event in Act II.

That none of them sees their impending deaths coming is even more amusing, as the audience watches opportunity present itself eight time over and each light bulb go off in Monty’s head.

It wouldn’t work half as well as it does without the innocence of Ken Barnett, a tall, handsome Monty you can’t help but love. The simplicity of his mannerisms and sincerity in his narration make him a charming leading man and a perfect counterpoint to Mays and his physically quirkier characters. Los Angeles theatregoers will recognize Barnett from his 2011 work in Next Fall at The Geffen and The Taper’s production of Burn This.

Lisa O'Hare, Ken Barnett and Chilina Kennedy

An effervescent Lisa O’Hare plays Monty’s social-climbing lover, Sibella. She is a vision in pink and a perfectly pouty participant in Monty’s romantic triangle that also includes Chilina Kennedy, a proper D’Ysquith young lady who is determined to marry Monty once she becomes widowed following the death of her beekeeper husband.

O’Hare’s appearances in L.A. have included playing Eliza Doolittle in Trevor Nunn’s national tour of My Fair Lady at The Ahmanson and the starring roles of Gigi and Sally Bowles in Reprise Theatre Company’s recent productions of Gigi and Cabaret. Kennedy also guested in Reprise’s An Evening with Jason Robert Brown and played Mary Magdalene in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar at La Jolla Playhouse and on Broadway. Here she displays her expertise with humor using an operetta heroine’s vocal gymnastics to enhance a moment, and when she lets her high notes spin out over the audience, it is glorious.

As expected, Alexander Dodge’s theater within a theater scenic design will make you gasp with delight the minute you walk into the room and he keeps the surprises coming as each new scene unfolds. Philip S. Rosenberg’s precision lighting directs attention to just the right place at the right time and Aaron Rhyne has created video projections that not only add to the action at hand but do so in a decidedly memorable way.

Linda Cho’s costume creations complete the aristocratic look of 1909 London, with her designs for Mays’ many characters easily deserving of awards for their authenticity and individuality, if not for their ability to look polished and effortless after costume changes that often take only seconds.

To be sure, the machinations of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder create a thoroughly entertaining diversion, and this world premiere musical, as Mays’ I Am My Own Wife before it, has a date with The Great White Way set firmly in its path. See it here at The Old Globe first and you’ll be one step ahead of the crowds.

The Old Globe in Balboa Park
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA

Through April 14, 2013
Tickets: Call (619) 234-5623

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