16 October 2014

'A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder'

My last show in the September Series was A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, the profoundly silly Tony-winner for Best Musical in 2014.  I took my mom to the Sunday matinee on 28 September at the Walter Kerr on West 48th Street.  Now, let me state right at the start that I approve of theater as pure entertainment.  I think making audiences feel good (or cry or feel scared, whatever) is a perfectly worthy theatrical goal.  Some of my fellow theater enthusiasts disparage plays that aspire to no more than that, but I laud them—and Gentleman’s Guide accomplishes its aim with delirious success.  I can’t say if it deserved the Tony (I don’t know what its competition was), but it definitely deserved the nomination.  It was immense fun!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, a co-production of the Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, premièred in Hartford, Connecticut, from 12 October to 11 November 2012, under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director, with Jefferson Mays in eight roles.  The musical then played in San Diego, California, from 8 March to 14 April 2013 with the same director and cast.  Gentleman’s Guide started previews on Broadway on 22 October 2013 and opened on 17 November with Tresnjak, making his Broadway début, continuing to direct and Jefferson Mays still in the lead.  The play won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Robert L. Freedman), Best Direction of a Musical (Tresnjak), Best Costume Design (Linda Cho); Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book of a Musical (Freedman), Outstanding Lyrics (Steven Lutvak and Freedman), Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Mays), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Lauren Worsham), Outstanding Director of a Musical (Tresnjak), Outstanding Projection Design (Aaron Rhyne); Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Mays), Outstanding Director of a Musical (Tresnjak); and the Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Musical.  (There were also many additional nominations for all these stage awards.  I saw Tresnjak’s staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre for a New Audience in 2007 and posted that pre-ROT report on 28 February 2011.)

With book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, two relative newcomers to Broadway musicals, Gentleman’s Guide is drawn from on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, the same source material as the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, which starred Alec Guinness as eight doomed members of the D’Ascoyne family.  (In the musical, the family’s name is D’Ysquith—prophetically pronounced DIE-skwith.  In the film, one of the family is named Ascoyne D’Ascoyne; in the play, a family member is Asquith D’Ysquith.)  Neither the old flick nor the current musical play has a serious bone in its body—it’s all meant to be nothing but (ghastly) fun and inanity.  (I mean, who really minds watching an ambitious and ruthless young man dispatch a bunch of Colonel Blimp aristocrats, anyway.  Charles Isherwood called them “stuffed shirts or stuffed skirts” in the New York Times and they’re all made to seem self-centered, arrogant, and disdainful of the “lower orders”—there’s even a song in Gentleman’s Guide called “I Don’t Understand the Poor”!)

The plot, though essentially straightforward, is loaded with little details and side-trips, so I’ll just do a précis and assume most readers either know the story or have seen the Alec Guinness movie.  (If you haven’t, by all means, rent it—it’s a classic.  It was listed in Time magazine’s 100 greatest films in 2005 and the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British films.)  Let’s just say that in 1907, when destitute Montague Navarro, having just buried his beloved mother, learns that he’s actually a member of one of England’s most illustrious families, the D’Ysquiths, and is eighth in line to inherit the Earldom of Highhurst, he becomes intrigued.  And a little vengeful.  It seems that his mother, a cousin of the current earl, Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, was disinherited and expelled from the family when she married for love instead of financial gain—“My father was Castilian.  And worse, a musician”!—and was forced to earn a living as a charwoman after her husband died when Monty was 7.  After finding proof of his status among his mother papers, he writes to Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr., head of the family bank, requesting employment.  Asquith, Jr., responds dismissively and instructs Monty never to write to the family again, and the young pretender begins his campaign to claim his rightful place in the family.  

One by one, he arranges the demise of six of the seven D’Ysquiths between him and the Eighth Earl of Highhurst.  (Monty doesn’t actually kill any of them—he just sets up the circs.)  I won’t relate the ways Monty does in his relatives—it’s too much fun to see how he manages this and how Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and projection designer Rhyne stage the deaths (but take particular note of the first demise for its visual cleverness and the second for Tresnjak’s preamble staging; I’ll say no more)—but I’ll tell you that Lord Adalbert finally succumbs (and wait till you get a load of his countess, Lady Eugenia, as played by Joanna Glushak!) and Monty becomes Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro (he never even knew he had a middle name before finding his birth certificate among his mother’s papers), Ninth Earl of Highhurst.  And lands in jail on a charge of murder.  (I won’t be specific about this, either.  Be forewarned, though, that the ending is a little different from that of the American release of Kind Hearts—and even differs some from the British ending—due to interference from the Breen Office and its Hollywood Production Code.  For more information on the Hays Code, you can refer to my article on that subject, posted on ROT on 7 July 2013.)  

Now, as I said, Gentleman’s Guide has no serious point or theme, so there’s little to discuss with respect to the play’s content.  I’ll even add that, as amusing as they are, Freedman’s book, Lutvak’s music, and their joint lyrics are nothing to write home about—or, for that matter, describe on a blog (though you’ll plotz when you hear “Better With a Man”!).  (The orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick who earlier this year won the Stephen Sondheim Award.  I ran a tribute to Tunick on ROT on 15 May.)  They’re fine, reminiscent of British music hall, old-time musicals, or older-time operettas.  (Adalbert’s first number, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” has definite resonances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs.  In another era, the role might have been played by Martyn Green, the master comedian and singer of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company who played all those roles: Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, in H.M.S. Pinafore, Ko-Ko in The Mikado and more.)  I’m not well enough qualified in music or musical performance to criticize this part of the production cogently; all I can say is that the songs are fun and witty, and absolutely appropriate for the play’s style and period.  (They were also executed brilliantly, as I’ll note again in a bit.)

What makes Gentleman’s Guide such wonderful theater and so much fun over two hours and twenty minutes (including one intermission) is the staging, which is clever and delightful from start to finish.  It’s all little stage gimmicks, most of which are as old as the hills, but applied with such a light touch and such glee and panache that they seem . . . well, not fresh, but well-scrubbed and repainted.  To start with, inside the regular proscenium opening of the Walter Kerr (which dates to 1921, not too long after the play’s set) is a smaller proscenium with its own blood-red velvet drape and elaborately decorated arch (including a pair of busts that . . . ummm, figure amusingly in the proceedings—oh, and keep an eye on the family portraits hanging in Highhurst Castle!).  It resembles an oversized toy theater (can you do that—like “jumbo shrimp”?) or maybe a puppet stage.  Most of the play, which is a flashback from Monty writing his memoir in his cell awaiting the verdict from his murder trial in 1909, two years after setting out on his grisly quest, is enacted on the small set-within-the-set; the main stage becomes the street or Monty’s cell (over on stage left) or other locales, like a forestage in a different theater.  It’s just a conceit, but helps tremendously to establish that this is all theater, that it’s fantasy and imaginary, stressing the theatricality of all of this.  It’s also like a pop-up theater in a children’s book.  None of this is serious!  (1909 is Edwardian, as a passing mention makes clear, but you can look at it as an extension of Victorian England, when the gruesome was accepted as entertainment and even children were told the most bloody of stories and fairy tales.  Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, for instance.)

Just like the details of the plot, I don’t want to describe too much of the production because a lot of the fun is being surprised at the effects engineered by Messrs. Tresnjak, Dodge, and Rhyne.  They functioned as a true team for this aspect of the show.  I’ll state that these are theater effects—though at least one is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (or perhaps Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety is a better analogy)—that would lose all their wonder in a film version.  It’s all about how they suggest reality, refer to it, without actually coming close to being realistic.  In film, that would be lost.  (When I say that one of my criteria for good theater is that it must be “theatrical”—and regular readers of ROT will know this reference—this is precisely what I mean.  Only the live stage can pull this off—not despite its limitations, but because of them!)  I’m not a theater techie, but aside from acting, this is why I love theater.  This is actual stage magic—and I delight in the very artificiality of it.  Gentleman’s Guide is chock full of this theatricality—almost every D’Ysquith death makes use of one of these effects, and every one of them alone is worth the price of admission.  (This is precisely why I don’t disparage theater-as-entertainment: serious theater wouldn’t try such hokey stuff, and it’s just too wonderful to miss!)

But the terrific staging—Entertainment Weekly’s Thom Geier described one fabulous number, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” as a “a door-slamming bedroom-farce of a trio”—and effects are not the only things to recommend Gentleman’s Guide—though it could be sufficient.  There’s also Jefferson Mays.  Oh, what a joy!  What a great performance.  I’m sorry to report that I don’t know Mays’s work (I checked his credits and I’ve never seen any of his productions, much, now, to my regret.)  Of course, the job is a tour-de-force for the actor cast, so Mays got the material served up to him.  (He’s also aided tremendously and wittily by Linda Cho’s delightful Edwardian costumes and Charles LaPointe’s character-enhancing wigs.)  But what fun he had with it—and made of it!  He won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical for the work, but he was passed over for the Tony (in favor of Neil Patrick Harris for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an honorable loss, I guess).  I won’t say that Mays made each of the D’Ysquith victims unique—that isn’t really the point: they’re meant to be basically the same personality with individual quirks—but he embodied each of them as fully as the play requires—let’s admit that Gentleman’s Guide isn’t deep, either thematically or performatively.  (There are some remarkably quick costume changes on display, however.)  But no one on any stage anywhere could surpass Mays’s hambone verve, energy, or joy in portraying all the aristocratic twits of the D’Ysquith clan.  (I can only imagine what he did with his role in the one-actor, multi-character play I Am My Own Wife, for which he did win the Best Actor Tony in 2004—and that wasn’t even a musical!)  If the production makes Gentleman’s Guide worth the cost of a Broadway seat, then Mays’s gorgeous performance just means you get twice what you paid for!  Now, that’s value for money!

Now, before I get to other individual performances, let me say that the singing voices are exceptional, even for Broadway.  Especially the women’s voices: Lisa O’Hare, as sassy, gold-digging Sibella, Monty’s love and mistress, and Lauren Worsham, Phoebe D’Ysquith, Monty’s fiancée and (ummm) cousin—he eventually makes her his countess—both, also two Broadway newcomers, have bell-clear sopranos which they use to wonderful dramatic effect, particularly in the duet scenes.  (Those scenes are where the frivolous musical comes very close to becoming operatic in quality and style.)  Bryce Pinkham, as Monty, has a good, strong tenor, with just enough of the juvenile in it to make him seem almost innocent—or forgivable—even as he plots cold-blooded death and mayhem.  (His plans for Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith are bizarrely elaborate.) 

To continue about Pinkham, he has to walk a precarious line, theatrically speaking.  Well, narratively, too, since Monty must balance his love of Sibella and their continuing romance even after she married someone else and he’s engaged to his cousin Phoebe while still seeing Sibella—all while he’s plotting his deadly rise to the earldom and dodging arrest and jail or hanging.  It’s a little dance of love and death that Pinkham executes adroitly.  But I was considering his tightrope walk between dastardly murderer and sympathetic romantic lead.  (I especially applaud Cho’s designs for Monty: his skinny trousers may be a perfectly common Edwardian style, but they also communicated a touch of youth that helps make the dastardly murderer boyish enough to gain my sympathy.)  After all, much of the appeal of Gentleman’s Guide resides in the audience’s hope that Monty reaches the title and gets his retribution despite the method he uses to get there.  The ending especially depends on our wish that he escape punishment even though he’s spent two hours confessing his wicked deeds.  Okay, Freedman supplies him with the story line and the lines to rationalize his actions, but our sympathy comes almost entirely from Pinkham’s portrayal.  And he succeeds—with the help of Mays who makes all the D’Ysquiths—except Asquith, Sr., who treats Monty generously and who conveniently dies of a heart attack without Monty’s interference—upper-class ninnies of one variety or another.  The play’s a lightweight—not a fault—but the work isn’t.  (Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard!)

In the press, most reviewers shared my point of view—or were even more positive and, I daresay, giddy.  (The notices of Jefferson Mays’s performance(s) were positively ecstatic in most cases, as I’ll demonstrate later.)  The Daily News, New York Post, am New York, and the websites Talkin’ Broadway and New York Theater demurred, however.  Elysa Gardner in USA Today, for instance, called Gentleman’s Guide a “delightful new musical romp” with Tresnjak’s “witty direction—supported by the drolly imaginative scenic and projection design of Alexander Dodge and Aaron Rhyne, respectively.”  Terry Teachout opened his Wall Street Journal notice by exulting, “At last, a good new Broadway musical.  Really good, in fact,” and then went on to report that Gentleman’s Guide is “wickedly witty, wonderfully well staged and as pleasing to hear as it is to see.”  His summing-up note is about as laudatory as I could imagine: “If you’re tired of apologizing to out-of-town visitors for the shaky state of 21st-century American musical comedy, send them to ‘A Gentleman’s Guide’ and rest assured that they’ll go home happy.”  

In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood called Gentleman’s Guide a “frolicsome operetta” that’s turned “murder most foul into entertainment most merry,” adding that the “delightful show will lift the hearts of all those who’ve been pining for what sometimes seems a lost art form: musicals that match streams of memorable melody with fizzily witty turns of phrase.”  Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday called Gentleman’s Guideat heart, a clever and jolly 90-minute frolic” that “runs a very leisurely 2-1 / 2 hours, not 90 minutes,” but allowed that the production’s over-length “should not dissuade patient theatergoers who want to relish” it and Tresnjak’s staging that “has the genuine charm of a miniature toy theater.”  The play, the Newsday review-writer observed, sports “one of those performances that people will be talking about all season” from Mays, and Lutvak and Freedman, the composer-lyricist-librettist team, after “the long, arch exposition, . . . deliver saucy impudence of bright operetta pastiche.”  The Financial Times’s Brendan Lemon pronounced that Gentleman’s Guide,a jolly spoof with a tart first act and a sentimental let-down of a second, proudly wears old-fashioned virtues on its pinafores.”  

Winer had clear reservations, notably with the lack of “a courageous editor,” but Matt Windman stepped entirely over the line, calling Gentleman’s Guide an “inferior musical” and “a silly English music hall pastiche” in am New York.  “With a thin premise, a sluggish book and unmemorable songs” and “an air of slapstick,” Windman specified, “the show makes for a tiresome 2½ hours.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli listed her objections, from the score’s “collection of innocuous music-hall pastiches,” to melodies that “aren’t very interesting,” the “uneven” pacing, director Tresnjak’s “staging tricks” that lead to “repetition,” and “the charmless Pinkham.”  Even Mays’s tour de force performances don’t “really register,” declared the Post reviewer.  And in the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz insisted that the “fun, but flawed” Gentleman’s Guide’s “got a hole in its heart” because it’s “without a great score.”  While the production “is a high-gloss beaut,” with fine performances, the Newsman pronounced: “Finally, there’s the score, and, alas, it’s a bit of a bore.”  The “songs are consistently cute—and that’s it,” reported Dziemianowicz.  “There’s not one number that really stands out and at times the music actually slows down the action.”  

The Village Voice’s Tom Sellar called the musical “charming and witty” and “a frequently funny faux-Edwardian romp” with a “sharp and witty book” by Freedman and a “serviceable score” by Lutvak.  A “commercial vehicle” which “motors its twisty plot with two terrific performances” (Mays and Pinkham), the musical, directed “with a meticulous hand,” is “a familiar tale, but executed—pun intended—with wit and delicious farcical timing.”  Sellar summed up by asserting, “A Gentleman's Guide stays fun because it celebrates and measures our material aspirations without trafficking in sentiment; it either sends up or dismisses any other psychology.”  Describing the show as “this delicious black satire” in the New York Observer, Rex Reed reported that the “spinning top of a show” is “creatively staged by the talented young director Darko Tresnjak with the breakneck pace of the Kentucky Derby and crossed with the dazzle of a British music hall revue.”  Unfolding from “one wicked stroke of genius after another, accompanied by fresh, funny scenic designs,” noted Reed, the production contains “rollicking songs by lyricist Steven Lutvak and composer Robert L. Freedman, performed by an able cast that has no trouble reaching the second balcony with perfect pitch.”  Caviling that “the show begins to sag” in the second act because “all the memorable murders have been completed,” the Observer writer said, the “rest of the show . . . is frankly anticlimactic.”  Reed, added, however: “Not to worry: There’s still a surprise ending on the way and more glorious singing,” concluding, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the theatrical equivalent of exploding caviar, and Broadway has a new hit for the holidays.”   

In “Goings on about Town” in the New Yorker, the reviewer called Gentleman’s Guide a “musical entertainment with panache and precision” which “sets its arch humor to a tuneful score, served up elegantly in Darko Tresnjak’s production.”  In New York magazine, Jesse Green reported that the creators of Gentleman’s Guideaim for droll comedy” and “usually hit their mark.”  “There are watered-silk smoking jackets and period-style songs and plenty of winks to the audience,” reported Green, and “the whole production looks terrific and moves smoothly from start to finish.”  But Green’s “one small” disappointment was “the songs”: “The tunes . . . are lovely, and . . . [t]he words . . . are often clever enough to raise a laugh”; however, “what this material needed from its songs, and does not get, is . . . a strong, clear, distinctive profile.”  

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney dubbed Gentleman’s Guide a “toothsome new musical” that’s “propelled by a rollicking story, humor of the most delectable amorality and the cleverest lyrics assembled in quite some time.”  The HR reviewer wrote that the “creative team of first-timers,” Freedman, Lutvak, and Tresnjak, provided a “devilish book” and “tuneful songs.”  The “inventive direction,” served by “sumptuous design elements and versatile ensemble,” resulted in “a small-scale show that feels both intimate and lavish.”  Calling the musical “witty,” with an “ingeniously absurd plot,”  Variety’s Marilyn Stasio dubbed Gentleman’s Guide an “adorably wicked show.”  The “stylish spoof of Edwardian manners and (lack of) morals,” Stasio wrote, “mocks its own high style.”  “Although the naughty lyrics are the sweetest of the show’s bitter treats,” asserted the Variety reviewer, “the show’s heart is in the old music halls, where the jokes were vulgar, the songs were upbeat, the lyrics were in bad taste, and the thespians often got away with . . . well, murder.”  

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the new undisputed king of musical comedy,” declared David Cote right at the top of his Time Out New York notice.  Singling out Mays’s “mercurial” performance as the “the jewel in GGLM’s crown,” Cote described the show as “[f]illed with lunatic sight gags and the wittiest, loveliest show tunes in years, there’s not a weak link in the lively cast, and Darko Tresnjak’s antic, cartoonish staging is ideal.”  All told, said the man from TONY, the “peerless” Gentleman’s Guide is the “most fun you can have on Broadway right now.”  Overkill has seldom been more enjoyable than in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a thoroughly delightful and uproarious new Broadway musical,” reported Thom Geier in his first sentence in Entertainment Weekly.  Directed with “ingenious wit” by Tresnjak, “Freedman’s script packs plenty of surprises” and “Lutvak’s jaunty score . . . sounds both fresh and period-perfect” with “gut-bustingly clever” lyrics.  A Gentleman’s Guide,” concluded the EW review-writer, “remains winsome and charming despite an alarming surfeit of devious and devilish characters.  Quite simply, it’s a bloody good time.”

On TV, where the reviews generally echoed the print press, Roma Torre said on NY1, the Time Warner Cable news channel in New York City, that Gentleman’s Guide was “exquisitely constructed” and “[c]lever, charming, inspired,” even “if it’s a little too long (adding, “[W]ell then I say the more the merrier”).  “Director Darko Tresnjak’s production delivers with wry invention and humor,” reported Torre, and “[t]he music . . . is tunefully rich, and much like Gilbert and Sullivan ditties, the witty lyrics stand out,” concluding, “‘A Gentleman’s Guide’ could easily serve as a primer itself on how to put on an intelligent crowd-pleaser with supreme wit and ingenuity.”  Robert Kahn called Gentleman’s Guide “a deliciously dark comic musical” on WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, and reported that Tresnjak “keeps matters moving apace,” even if “[t]he music and lyrics aren’t the most memorable you’ve heard.”  The set, Kahn observed in a simile I rather like, “has the effect of making the brutal events seem far, far away, like something you’re watching in a snow globe.”  “If it’s escapism you’re out for,” suggested Kahn, “‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’ has the trappings of a fun, lightweight night out.”

The cyber-press was mostly in the same vein as the paper and electronic reviewers (with two notable exceptions, as you’ll see).  On the Huffington Post, Christian Nilsson quipped that Gentleman’s Guide “refines macabre with a wink, then another, and several more,” then added, “While the show lacks a tune that audiences will hum as they’re exiting the theatre, the music and lyrics perfectly compliment the book, and provide over two hours of non-stop laughs.”  The play’s second half, which features “the love triangle,” Nilsson warned, however, “is never as compelling as the musical’s darker moments.”  Yet the HP reviewer ultimately felt, “While more and more Broadway theaters are holding jukebox musicals or musical adaptations of hit-movies, the Walter Kerr Theatre has something that is fresh, hysterical, and bloody brilliant.”  And for all lucky enough to nab a ticket for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, watching Monty do in the eight D’Ysquiths . . . will also set off gales of laughter,” declared Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp.  That, said Sommer, is because the musical’s “not only the funniest show on Broadway, but the most devilishly clever,” with a “savvy book and sparkling lyrics,” “nifty staging,” and “bravura performances.”  

On TheaterMania, David Gordon chuckled, “Death has not been this gleefully presented since the 1979 premiere of Sweeney Todd,” so “it’s hard not to find enjoyment in the show.”  (Perhaps Sondheim and Sweeney were “gleeful”—but they weren’t nearly as giddy over the prospect!)  The “lyrics . . . are whip-smart and impressively sharp,” Gordon wrote, and added, “Freedman’s book is similarly intelligent, but feels choppy in spots and meanders a bit too long here and there.”  Broadway World’s Michael Dale called the musical “a rollicking good time and a smashing Broadway debut for composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak, bookwriter/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and director Darko Tresnjak” and “a pocket-sized musical that dazzles with lyrical wit, dark comedic fun and bravura showmanship,” adding, “Intelligent and merry, all the elements work splendidly from start to finish.”  “The peppy period score is injected with the cleverest lyrics currently tickling Broadway ears,” insisted the BWW reviewer, and scenic designer Dodge “helps keep the dastardly doings lighthearted by . . . utilizing stagecraft no more advanced than what would be available a hundred years ago.”  Cho’s Tony-worthy costumes “complete the sumptuous picture.”  Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide declared bluntly, “This is a nearly perfect show.  It sets out to be a confection of light entertainment and achieves that goal in every way possible.”  The production is so well constructed that “all the parts come together exactly as they were meant to, and thus we have a cube of sugar that is exquisite.”  

On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray insisted that “it’s tough to remember another Broadway outing since Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore that’s derived so much gleeful entertainment in the hastening of mortality.”  While Murray seemed hung up on what he described as Monty’s “essential loathsomeness”—“you’ll probably be a little repulsed,” the TB reviewer assumed, by the putative heir’s actions (yeah, right!)—he also acknowledged that “when raw entertainment is the goal . . . you’re able to lose yourself in the show’s abundant charms.”  Murray complained that after all the deaths are staged in the first act, there’s “perilously little fun to be had” in the show’s second half since Mays “rapidly transitions from unforgettable to nearly forgotten,” thus “doing away with the one thing that makes [Gentleman’s Guide] distinctive rather than derivative.”  Mays’s performances, Murray declared however, “makes A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder a legitimate must-see, when otherwise it would be at best a forgettable lark.”  Somewhat more negative than Murray’s assessment, though, was Jonathan Mandell’s.  On New York Theater, Mandell affirmed that, despite its virtues such as “quick-witted comedy”; “some jolly acting,” especially from Mays; a “well-designed, well-acted” production; a “well enough plotted” script; and “all its cleverness and wicked charm, this is an entertainment I could easily have skipped.”  Though Gentleman’s Guide is “meant to be great fun,” Mandell found, “It becomes tiresome—and at times disturbing.”  He pointed to the “racist ignorance and condescension” of Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith and Henry D’Ysquith’s “double-entendres, apparently based on the premise that homosexuality is hilarious” as deficiencies in the playmakers’ script.  Tresnjak’s direction is “brisk” and Tunick’s orchestrations “stand out,” admitted the New York Theater writer, then summed up: “But, let’s face it, ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ is primarily an opportunity to see Jefferson Mays in action,” though his fans will want “to see him in something that isn’t just clever.”

All the reviewers agreed on one thing, however, irrespective of each overall assessment of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.  Each and every one praised Jefferson Mays and his portrayals of the eight doomed D’Ysquiths.  Just a few samples of the encomia heaped on the chameleonic actor: “the knock-’em-dead performance of Jefferson Mays” (Green, New York), “This masterful actor’s precision and versatility is a complete marvel” (Torre, NY1), “jaw-dropping skill and ever-increasing daffiness” (Geier, EW), “one of the most tireless, whiplash-inducing performances ever attempted on the American stage” (Gordon, TM), “a bloody comic genius” (Cote, TONY), “actor conjuring the magic” and “virtuoso turns” (Lemon, FT), “shape-shifting and comedic gifts are on glorious display” (Gardner, USA Today).  And that’s only from the Broadway presentation; Mays got similar praise in Hartford and San Diego, not to mention at Tony time last spring!  And you know what?  I can’t even disagree.  He’s bloody hilarious!

1 comment:

  1. On 31 Oct., I'll be posting a collection of articles from both the print and cyber press about Jefferson Mays's acting work in 'Gentleman's Guide,' under the umbrella title "Jefferson Mays, Chameleonic Actor." Check it out.