NEW YORK (AP) — There are different ways to make it to the top. You could start at the bottom and work hard, or breeze into the family business — or you could try murdering your way to success, as in the dazzlingly funny new musical comedy "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder."
The hilarious satire on Edwardian melodrama, featuring the incomparable and seemingly tireless Jefferson Mays in eight roles, opened Sunday night on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. A gentle, penniless young man, Monty Navarro (given disarming appeal in a star turn by Bryce Pinkham) learns of his late, downtrodden mother's secret aristocratic past as a disinherited member of the wealthy D'Ysquith clan.
With zestful comedic brilliance, Mays portrays all eight of the hapless relatives who stand between Monty and his new goal to revenge the heartless treatment of his mother and become the ninth Earl of Highhurst Castle. Pinkham narrates and relives Monty's confessional memoirs with dashing aplomb. Having begun his dark, opportunistic ascent with a fortuitous "accident," our anti-hero works to creatively eliminate all the D'Ysquiths in his way.
The farcical vaudevillian tour de force features a book by Robert L. Freedman, rousing music by Steven Lutvak, and wry, wonderful lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak that call to mind the light-hearted puns and wit of Noel Coward. Darko Tresnjak directs with a flair for slapstick surprises and exuberantly cheesy sight gags and special effects, while Peggy Hickey provides clever choreography for the versatile ensemble.
Events zip along with a winking, good-humored air, interspersed with wonderful singing by the whole cast, whether it's a bouncy melody or a thoughtful ballad. Ever energetic, Mays, who won a Tony Award for portraying multiple characters in "I Am My Own Wife," superbly creates a different eccentric British personality for each unfortunate D'Ysquith.
Reflecting the family's careless, privileged attitude, he pompously performs "I Don't Understand the Poor" as insensitive, cropper-snapping Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith Jr. ("to be so debased is in terrible taste"). Turning boyish, a beaming Mays sails around on a scooter as an effete country squire, who delightfully yearns for Monty as they suggestively duet on "It's Better With A Man."
An especially memorable number finds Mays as a self-promoting, do-gooder dowager whom Monty relentlessly dispatches to danger zones the world over. Gleefully, Mays leads the dowager's travel-battered, increasingly beleaguered entourage in "Lady Hyacinth Abroad" ("the hottentots and pygmys may appall us/but even they are part of God's design!")
Not content with helping numerous D'Ysquith heirs speedily "congregate underneath the sod," Monty also divides his affections between two lovely ladies. His beautiful, shallow mistress, Sibella (Lisa O'Hare, svelte and pouting), who rejected him when he was poor, clashes with his naive new fiancee, distant cousin Phoebe D'Ysquith (a charming Lauren Worsham, who tremulously warbles Phoebe's innocent love.)
Tresnjak brilliantly stages their love triangle in a scene in which Pinkham, barricaded between two doors keeping the suspicious ladies apart, swings back and forth between them while all three sing "I've Decided to Marry You."
The music hall atmosphere is enhanced by Alexander Dodge's colorful scenery and a sumptuous variety of period costumes by Linda Cho. Pinkham's surprised delight in each of Monty's deadly successes is a fine counterpart to Mays' rollicking embellishment of his off-kilter characters.