You see a great number in a musical and stop the show with rabid applause. But how many times have you really wanted the show to stop — and have them repeat the number on the spot?
Flash to Act Two of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Old Globe. Montague Navarro hid his lover, the seductive Sibella, in a room behind a door. Across the narrow hallway, behind another door, stands Phoebe D’Ysquith. Among the last of the rapidly depleting D’Ysquiths, she decided it’s time to marry. She chose Monty and just announced their engagement, to his great surprise. And that is — or, to her patrician persuasion, should be — that.
But Monty, who hasn’t a moral bone in his body or an ethical synapse in his brain, becomes trapped in the curse of the sexist male: Phoebe’s spirit’s as appealing as Sibella’s flesh. Which to choose? As he tries to conceal his mistress from his self-appointed fiancée, Monty ping-pongs from door #1 to door #2 in the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” If the scene were in a silent film, it’d be a hilarious farce. The staging alone’s a tour de force.
But there’s more. The song flanks Monty with Mozartian arias and extraordinary singers: Lisa O’Hare (Sibella) has a mile-long list of credits, as does Chilina Kennedy (Phoebe), among them Mary Magdalene in Des McAnuff’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. When the trio completes this astonishing number — and since live theater affords no instant replays — you want to stop the show, quote Magdalene, and plead, “Could we start again, please?”
And could Jefferson Mays please re-sing “I Don’t Understand the Poor”? He’s Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, current Earl of Highhurst (where the family doth “prevail on a mythical scale”), and he can’t understand why the poor choose to be poor — and why “they’re constantly turning out more.” The song’s as wacko as Lord Adalbert’s entitled naivete is appalling.
And that’s the hallmark of this thoroughly enjoyable musical. The elements are so interwoven, it’s near impossible to single one out: Steven Lutvak’s score ranges from Mozart to waltzes to early-20th-century music halls (and is so rich it only has room for one reprise); Robert L. Freedman’s book and often brilliant lyrics; Darko Tresnjak’s astonishingly creative direction; inspired performances and design work (including a terrific use of videos and apparently invisible body mikes). Everything’s of a piece.
They say in Theater of the Grotesque you laugh and wonder why. If so, then Gentleman’s Guide qualifies as Sophisticated Grotesque: the style rivals the great wits of theater, but the hero’s a serial killer: if you laugh, and you will, you aid and abet his crimes.
Monty Navarro would ne-er do well if left to his own, ’umble beginning devices. But guess what? He learns he’s related to the mega-bucked — and mad as hatters — D’Ysquiths. Trouble is: eight heirs stand between him and the Earldom. What to do? Terminate each with extreme comedic prejudice.
His modus operandi: turn a D’Ysquith’s avocation into a lethal liability (Henry, the lonely beekeeper, pursued by an irate hive; real bullets in a stage-prop rifle). So maybe the D’Ysquith’s just kill themselves, in a way, sort of — okay they don’t. But one’s felonious culpability gives way to the persistent question: how will Monty do in the next in line?
The show’s so tightly woven, any slight change would diminish it. Ken Barnett makes Monty the Dorian Gray of musical comedy. If the actor playing him didn’t have Barnett’s elegant Edwardian style, impish appeal, and remarkable voice, at once relaxed and rocket-like, gendarmes would empty the house seats in short shrift. Imagine the Emcee of Cabaret as a whimsical young lad out for a jolly, albeit murderous lark. I can’t either, though Barnett just might pull it off.
Gentleman’s Guide’s a homecoming — nay, a Victory Tour — for two of its principals. In 2004, Darko Tresnjak revived the Old Globe’s moribund Summer Shakespeare Festival. In 2009, for reasons that still make no sense, he left. Now artistic director of Hartford Stage, which has encouraged his gifts to flourish, Tresnjak packs every scene with one theatrical surprise after another.
And he cast the D’Ysquiths perfectly. Jefferson Mays plays all eight. The Tony Award–winner (for I Am My Own Wife) and graduate of UCSD’s MFA program does the near impossible: he gives each a family resemblance, yet makes each instantly distinct: the kindly bonkers Parson Ezekiel (who kicks the bucket with Hitchcockian vertigiousness); beekeeper Henry (so closeted he doesn’t understand the lyrics for “Better with a Man”); the reformer Lady Hyacinth and her compulsion for causes; and of course red-coated Lord Adalbert, who not only doesn’t understand the poor, he sings one of the most brazenly psychotic (and screamingly funny) songs in musical theater: “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.”
Could we, I don’t know, could we hear that one again, please? ■
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak, lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Darko Tresnjak, cast: Jefferson Mays, Ken Barnett, Lisa O’Hare, Chilina Kennedy, Price Waldman, Rachel Izen, Kevin Ligon, Heather Ayers, Kendal Sparks, Catherine Walker; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Mike Ruckles; choreographer, Peggy Hickey
Playing through April 14, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623