What is that, you say? A new Broadway musical that is not based on a recent movie or book? And it doesn’t star a big Hollywood name to lure the holiday tourists? Yea, right.
Well, my brothers and sisters in the theatre god, I’m feeling all sorts of evangelical about this. It’s true! There is hope! There is salvation! And it’s name is
Jefferson Mays A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, an honest-to-god original, clever, and exciting new musical.
Okay, maybe I’m coming off way too strong about this. Or not- there’s a chronic lack of original material in Broadway houses, and a growing number of screen-to-stage stuff that exists almost entirely due to the fact that money-makers want to make money (like my financial jargon there?). Original shows are seen as far riskier investments than rehashing something that already has a precedent for making money. Taglines from such musicals vary from “Remember that movie you liked? Pay almost $100 to see it again, LIVE!” to “Remember that concert you went to thirty years ago? Pay almost $100 to see it again, except with a loose plot and boring characters!” That’s not to say, of course, that musical adapted from a film or music group is terrible. Some are even great. But look at last year’s TONY nominees for Best Original Musical- Kinky Boots, Matilda, A Christmas Story, and Bring It On. ALL OF THEM are adapted from films. And that’s original musicals. We’re leaving hardly room room for new stories or new ideas and we’re pushing our notions of a show’s bankability away from how innovative and exciting something feels towards how comfortable and familiar it is.
Now, Gentleman’s Guide doesn’t threaten to break the status quo or usher in a new age of theatre, but it is a great reminder of how a successful musical can be made from sheer creativity and inventive storytelling.
When we are first introduced to Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), he is a 19th century aristocrat in prison awaiting his sentence for crimes we do not yet know. Flash back a few years and we find Monty grieving his mother’s death and struggling to make ends meet. When a mysterious acquaintance of his mother reveals that his mother was actually a disowned member of the extraordinarily wealthy D’Ysquith family, he decides to make a claim on his proper inheritance. However, the D’Ysquith refuse to acknowledge his claim, propelling Monty on the path to murdering all the D’Ysquith heirs and climbing up the ladder of earldom by himself.
Each of the murders are pretty hilarious and outlandish. And each of the D-Ysquith heirs is played by versatile actor extraordinaire, Jefferson Mays. Even though each character Mays plays is only onstage for a few minutes, they’re all incredibly memorable and enjoyable. However, one of the show’s biggest achievements is that May’s character acting does not outshine the rest of the cast. Sometimes when a show like this has an outstanding character actor, it rests its success on the draw of that single aspect of the show and the rest of the plot/acting suffers (Think Johnny Depp and Pirates). But Bryce Pinkham makes a wonderful straight-man to Mays’s crazy, and his character’s yearnings are explored with all the appropriate nuances and motivations. As Monty Navarro’s egotistical love interest, Lisa O’Hare also shines with every flounce and trill.
The book and lyrics, by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, are fine examples of how character and comedy can be cleverly weaved in a musical. They handle themes of class, love, and ambition with graceful charm and pointed comedy.The set design by Alexander Dodge is also outstanding, featuring the best use of projected visuals I’ve seen, probably ever.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/BroadwayWorld.com