One of the reasons I appreciate “Downton Abbey” is due to its ability to provide an in-depth and sympathetic look at what life was like for women in England during that period of our history. Of course, the show is entertaining as well, but I also find it incredibly educational and rewarding. Little did I expect a madcap comedy on Broadway to provide the same kind of education – and set to music, nonetheless.
Based on the novel “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” Roy Horniman and with book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, and directed by Darko Tresnjak, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder follows the story – and killing spree – of Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), an impvorished young man who learns after his mother’s death that he is part of the wealthy family the D’Ysquiths. Apparently his mother was disinherited after she eloped with an unsuitable Castilian.
Introduced to the audience as a soft-spoken, unambitious and apparently aimless young man who is madly in love with the wealthy and unattainable Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), Monty’s character quickly takes a turn for the darker – and the more comedic, when, after an unsuccessful attempt to connect with his relatives amicably, he stumbles upon the idea of killing off the eight heirs who stand between himself and the title of the Earl of Highhurst. What follows is a series of absurd and absurdly humorous sketches where Monty disposes of his relatives through the use of saws, a swarm of bees, weights in a gym, and other techniques.
Monty could be a difficult character to sympathize with when reading about him on paper, but when performed by Pinkham, and with the extremely clever music and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak, one is able to understand why he makes the choices he does – even when they cause some people in the audience to become squeamish. It doesn’t hurt that the relatives, all superbly performed by Jefferson Mays – who infuses each of them with different quirks and characteristics – aren’t really that likable, minus one or two.
When disposing of his effeminate, closeted homosexual cousin (their duet “It’s Better With a Man” is absolutely hilarious), Monty meets the lovely Phoebe (Lauren Ward) and a romantic triangle promptly ensues, resulting in another comedic highlight of the evening, the door-slamming French farce song “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” where Monty is literally caught between the two women. The comparisons of the two female characters – the lusty, sexual, elusive Sibella and the sweet, innocent, fresh-faced Phoebe – escapes the clichés of the usual romantic triangles thanks to the excellent performances by the two women. O’Hare infuses Sibella with both sexuality and naive confusion; here is a woman who thought she was doing what women were supposed to do by marrying a wealthy man, even if she doesn’t love him, and remaining beautiful and young; she later finds that, once she gets what she thought she wanted, she’s unsatisfied and bored. A character that could be brushed off as nothing but a pretty face (and voice) actually provides fantastic insight into the social restrictions that were placed upon women at that time. And Ward presents Phoebe as surprisingly cunning, despite her innocent freshness and sweetness. When the two women share the stage, it’s difficult to decide whcih one of them to focus on.
The musical also presents great insight into the social classes of England; when Mays performs the song “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” an entitled lament by one of the wealthy D’Ysquiths about the commoners who insist on touring his house and invading his life, one almost misses the brilliance of the lyrics – which are truly brilliant.
The musical is presented in an unapologetical old-fashioned manner, with sets by Alexander Dodge; costumes by Linda Cho; lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg. With a witty score, outstanding cast and clever commentary, this musical is not one to be missed.