Some critics try to play kingmaker, declaring this play a masterpiece or that tuner a smash hit even before the box-office receipts have been counted. As a rule, I try to avoid the crystal-ball racket, but my enthusiasm for a wonderful new show has gotten the better of me. So here goes. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the new undisputed king of musical comedy. Filled 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. And without a doubt, the jewel in GGLM’s crown is an eight-faceted gem: Jefferson Mays as a gargoylish gallery of doomed twits, snobs and prigs, members of the seriously inbred and outré D’Ysquith clan. These various scions and heirs must fall so that distantly related and mostly disinherited Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) can rise.
Mays is a bloody comic genius (with an ace backstage costume crew), quick-changing from a flouncing lord (death by multiple bee stings) to a gravely serious banker (heart attack) in seconds. Padded out as either a big-bosomed philanthropic matron or a muscle-bound, pith-helmet-wearing eugenicist, the actor delivers a crisp and instantly hilarious caricature. For those who admired his previous non-singing work (in I Am My Own Wife and Blood and Gifts, to name two), he turns out to have impressive chops, a clipped delivery that calls to mind the characterful warbling of Noël Coward.
The Coward connection carries through to the score itself, with music by Steven Lutvak, who collaborated on exceedingly witty lyrics with book writer Robert L. Freedman. It has become a clichéd grumble amongst those exiting new musicals that you can’t remember any tunes, but Lutvak and Freedman buck the modern condition. Their songs, too organic and surprising to be dismissed as pastiche, assimilate influences from Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim, and English music hall. They range from broadly satiric “I Don’t Understand the Poor” to the campy “Better with a Man” and the brilliantly constructed operatta-ish trio “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”
Pinkham holds his own as Monty Navarro, ninth in line to the earldom of Highhurst and zestfully dispatching every relative in his way (oh yes, this guy gets the earl). It can’t be easy trying to wrest giggles or the spotlight from Mays, but Pinkham exudes boyish charisma and the right mix of dash and desperation. Opera soprano Lauren Worsham shows off her heavenly pipes (and killer timing) as one of Monty’s love interests, a D’Ysquith who, happily, doesn’t stand in his way. The other is played with vixenly verve by Lisa O’Hare, as a smoky-voiced philanderess who throws a spanner into Monty’s works. Keeping the zaniness on a fast track and maintaining the right proportion of dead bodies to belly laughs, director Tresnjak indulges every visual goof possible – highborn or low – on Alexander Dodge’s adorable Victorian toy-theater set.
To savor this ingeniously crafted piece of Anglo-flavored foolery, you don’t have to be a fan of Monty Python, English panto, The Mystery of Edwin Drood or, indeed, Kind Hearts and Coronets (the 1949 movie that, like GGLM, is based on a 1907 novel), but it wouldn’t hurt. The most fun you can have on Broadway right now, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is, in a word, peerless.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.