Christopher Falcioni ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
As one of the most truly American forms of theatre, the musical has for many years been about the old-fashioned standards of music, dance, spectacle, and fun – but in recent years, there’s been a slightly growing feel that older musical traditions have come and gone.
Newer productions such as Rent have ditched the orchestra pits of old and gone head-first into rock sounds, with simplistic settings, while shows like Next To Normal have jettisoned the notion of lighthearted fun in favor of moody and often tragic storylines, with the proliferation of ambiguous endings that are neither fully happy or sad. Perhaps most visible in most theatre today is the lack of a curtain before a show, removing the element of wonder and surprise from new production and instead infusing the notion that we should be seeing the stage for what it is: A stage, rather than a magical window into a story.
While most new musicals follow this newer scheme, there are some that have recognized that old-style musical theatre is somewhat of a dying breed. Enter “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder”, based on the 1907 novel, “Israel Rank – The Autobiography of a Criminal” – an unapologetic comedy that gets back to the basics of musical theatre with a lightness and frivolity that hasn’t been seen in many recent musicals.
The story revolves around Monty Navarro and how, in order to rise in rank and become wealthy enough to woo his possession-obsessed girlfriend, he is led to attempt the murder of approximately six members of the D’Ysiquith family: all played by the stellar Jefferson Mays. Along the way, love triangles tangle, relations become complications, and the bodies pile up like nobody’s business. The book, written by Robert L. Freedman – actually an American – and nominated for a Tony (joining nine other nominations, making A Gentleman’s Guide the most nominated production this year), is punchy and fun while keeping the characters varied and versatile. While not all of them live long enough to see a character arc, they are all brilliantly focused on one objective: On making the audience laugh.
And laugh they do. Without spoiling any of the fun, the cast is put through a bevy of costume changes and peculiar situations that lead to tremendous laughs, led along by the music of Steven Lutvak (also nominated for a Tony), which, while beautifully orchestrated, isn’t particularly hummable but gets better as the show progress. The songs especially pick up after a particularly climactic moment in the second act when Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham (Tony nominated) get into a heated battle with their man in a song entitled “I’ve Decided To Marry You”.
Jefferson Mays (Tony nominated) will get much of the well-deserved praise for his incredible costume changes and quick wittedness when it comes to differentiating each of his numerous characters, be it a dreadfully old priest, a sickeningly brawny meathead, or a terribly lucky female traveler. But many of the jokes – and the show’s premise as a whole – doesn’t work out unless there’s a straight man to play off of – and a murderer who’s much too adorable to hate. Bryce Pinkham (Tony Nom) accomplishes both as Monty, and he manages to move the show, and it’s complex plot, along at a steady clip, always keeping the audience attuned with the family lineage and the complex relationships, while convincing us that a cold-blooded killer can have a bit of heart.
One of the most refreshing things about A Gentleman’s Guide, however, is how earnest of a throwback it is. The set (Tony Nominated) and the costumes (Another Tony…) is over-the-top in matching with the storyline and is exactly what you want to see in a theatre. The actors, directed meticulously by Darko Tresnjak (You get the idea, don’t you?) don’t wink at their characters as in, say, The Drowsy Chaperone, a show that’s created to be a love letter to older musicals. Instead, the actors in A Gentleman’s Guide earnestly embody their characters, creating a world where we can forget about our modern need to put irony and self-awareness into everything that we do – what’s more genuinely entertaining than murder and scandal, anyway?
At the end of the day, A Gentleman’s Guide is a fun romp, that, while without the staying power of emotional gravity or even very catchy songs, restores a little bit of the tradition of good old-fashioned American musical theater. And with ten Tony nominations, it would be a lie to say the show couldn’t win something.