If you're ever looking for a creative way to off someone, might I suggest checking out Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, a new musical comedy that comes to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre by way of Hartford Stage and The Old Globe Theatre. Over the course of two hours and twenty zany minutes, eight people are dispatched in eight delectable ways, from bee stings to presumed cannibalism. What do the deceased have in common? They all share the same name (D'Ysquith) and are all in line to take over the position of Earl of Highhurst. And they're all portrayed by one man, Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays, whose virtuosic performance is surely one (or eight) of the year's best.
Inspired by the 1947 film Kind Hearts and Coronets (which itself was inspired loosely by Roy Hornimann's 1907 novel Israel Rank: Autobiography of a Criminal), the musical, set in 1909 England, explores what happens when a man of no means finds out he's ninth in line to inherit a dukedom. Naturally, Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), whose recently deceased mother was disinherited from the clan, decides to murder everyone standing in his way. Whether it's due to his love for Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), who will only marry for means — or because of sheer unhinged psychopathy — is deliberately left unclear.
Enter Mays who, in no particular order, appears as the foppish dandy Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr.; hunter Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith; dottery drunken Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith; stockbroker Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, Sr.; fey beekeeper Henry D'Ysquith; the beefy Major Lord Bartholomew D'Ysquith; charity matron Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith; and actress Lady Salome D'Ysquith Pumphrey. Each one is promptly assassinated (except he who dies on his own), in the most hilarious (and certainly most gruesome) of ways.
Part of the fun (and there's a lot of fun to be had) is not only guessing how each death will happen, but watching them as they do. Director Darko Tresnjak, who stages the show in and around Alexander Dodge's gorgeous Edwardian toy theater of a set, makes excellent use of projections (by Aaron Rhyne) and good old theatrical ingenuity (my particular favorite was flying red and black feathers as brains) to showcase the myriad ways that Mays meets his maker.
To say that watching Jefferson Mays die was the most ridiculously enjoyable experience of the Broadway season so far may seem a tad bit (morbid? insensitive? heartless?), but it's absolutely true. And to see the sadistic glee in his eyes as he not only succumbs over and over but transforms from D'Ysquith to D'Ysquith adds significantly to that enjoyment. Linda Cho's gorgeous costumes aid and abet the madness and are so ornately detailed that you often have to suppress the need to scream at the stage, "HOW DID THAT QUICK-CHANGE HAPPEN!?!?!?"
Fortunately, Mays is joined by a game cast of miscreants, from the boyish Pinkham (with a "Who, me?" gaze that gets more menacing as the evening progresses) to the beautiful sopranos O'Hare and Lauren Worsham (as Monty's other lover, Phoebe D'Ysquith), whose tug of war for Monty's affection is expertly staged by Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey in the second-act number "I've Decided to Marry You." Lutvak's score, played by an orchestra of twelve musicians using luscious orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, brings to mind Gilbert and Sullivan, with hints of Stephen Sondheim, Maury Yeston, and Lerner & Loewe. His lyrics (written with Freedman) are whip-smart and impressively sharp. (They've also created one of the better showtunes of the season, a heartbreaking solo for Monty called "Foolish to Think.") Freedman's book is similarly intelligent, but feels choppy in spots and meanders a bit too long here and there.
Still, it's hard not to find enjoyment in the show. Death has not been this gleefully presented since the 1979 premiere of Sweeney Todd.
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