He’s charming, well mannered, sensitive, and sings like an angel.
Make that a fallen angel.
Monty Navarro, the main character in the new musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, also happens to be a serial killer, a plot point that may be just a teensy bit disturbing for audiences—and must have been more than a little challenging for the show’s creators.
But that’s the twist—and the triumph—of this modest-in-scale but elegantly fashioned show, which premiered in October at Hartford Stage and is next set to run March 8–April 14 at the Old Globe in San Diego, which is co-producing. There are already reports of a possible commercial transfer to New York.
The show’s fascination comes not in the “whodunit” or the “why’d-he-do-it” of the story, but in the creative team’s “how’d-they-pull-it-off.” The answer—in this elegant A Little Night Murder of a production staged by Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, who has been shepherding the show for several years—is taste, tone and intent.
The musical revolves around Monty (Ken Barnett, recently seen in February House at the Public Theater in New York, and at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut), the oh-so-distant (as well as oh-so-poor) relation to one of England’s wealthiest families. Upon his sainted mother’s death, Monty learns that he is eighth in line to a Downton Abbey–sized fortune. Callous treatment from his relatives—and desperation to win a woman who desires money more than love—sets him on a path to eliminate those who stand in line to the fortune that he would inherit.
Robert L. Freedman based the musical’s book on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, an Edwardian actor-manager. A contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Horniman wrote in a sardonic, epigram-rich style that slyly mocks the manners and mores of the British upper class at the turn of the last century. (The once-out-of-print book was republished in 2008 and is an entertaining but decidedly dark page-turner.)
Movie buffs will be more familiar with the source material via its film incarnation, the 1949 British black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, produced by England’s Ealing Studios and directed by Robert Hamer. Like the film, the musical has all of the killer’s targets—male and female—played by the same actor. In the movie, Dennis Price plays the charming-but-lethal protagonist; but Kind Heartsis most memorable for Alec Guinness’s tour-de-force performance as a variety of soon-to-be-departed relatives.
The musical designates the multiple-role dazzle to Tony-winning actor Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife). Mays is impeccable in a wide range of pompous and imperious creations representing the spoiled rotten D’Ysquith clan—and he sings, too, and (in one hilarious, innuendo-laden number, “Better with a Man”) dances. (Peggy Hickey choreographs the show’s gracefully flowing movement.)
Like the book and the film, the musical is told as a first-person flashback as Monty writes the memoir that chronicles his deeds. He’s writing from his prison cell on the eve of his hanging, having just been convicted of murder—ironically, one that he meant to, but didn’t, commit. In voiceover, he tells the audience the story that brought him from poverty to the heights of wealth, and, finally, to the steps of the gallows.
Like the film, the musical eschews the anti-Semitism theme of the novel. In the book, the protagonist’s mother is shunned by her family for marrying a Jew (indeed, the offspring of that marriage is the titular Israel Rank, with a surname of multiple meanings). The post–World War II film comedy scratched the Jewish aspects, renamed the protagonist “Louis Mazzini” and re-invented his paternal heritage as Italian. The musical, likewise, keeps things light by making Monty’s father Castilian. Both film and musical also avoid the darkest elements of the book’s plot, such as the killing of a baby boy—here the rich relations are dispatched with a more gentlemanly sense of remove.
The musical also has a more playful tone than either book or film, due in no small part to the show’s infectious score by Steven Lutvak, who is known as a concert and cabaret performer, and witty lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak. The work is orchestrated with masterful minimalism for a six-piece ensemble by the veteran Sondheim hand Jonathan Tunick.
Alexander Dodge’s gorgeously detailed settings look like a turn-of-the-last-century pop-up greeting card, establishing the visual mood from the start. Linda Cho’s sumptuous period outfits add to the elegance. If blood is to be spilled, it’s going to be spilled amid splendor and satin, in the very best of taste. Sweeney Todd it ain’t.
And neither does Gentleman’s Guide echo the broadly done Agatha Christie–style musicalSomething’s Afoot, nor the whodunit Curtains, with its brassy show-biz setting. In period at least, it evokes the refined Brit eccentricity of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But in that show, the audience was part-sleuth. Here, the spectators are willing accomplices—after all, who hasn’t wanted to kill an odious relative? This approach reflects repressed times when there were strict rules of behavior masking a multitude of hidden desires—feelings that can only be revealed through song.
The first of those songs is “A Warning to the Audience,” a presentational number sung by the full eight-member company which sets the tone and, rather than suggesting a Grand Guignol night of theatre, offers something closer to a conspiratorial wink: “For those of you who may be faint of heart / We’ll warn you just once more / Before we latch the door / Don’t think twice / Just follow our advice / It’s only just past eight / It’s not too late / For god’s sake—go!”
But theatregoers need not worry. The creators set up their diabolical main character with care. Appealingly depicted by Barnett, this Monty has a demeanor—and a melodious tenor—to die for. When Monty first learns of his place in the D’Ysquith lineage, murder is far from his thoughts, because he hopes his aristocratic relatives might have a change of heart upon hearing of his mother’s death and help him out by giving him a modest job where he can show his worth. (“And if only they’d see / What a D’Ysquith I’d be / They might face their mistakes and embrace me at last,” he sings.)
Not bloody likely, as it turns out.
The clan is presented as a bunch of despicable twits and revolting snobs whose disdain for most of humanity is shown in the infectious patter song “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” an oblivious anthem for the one-percenters. Monty’s plea to the first relative he visits—a dithering reverend who refuses to help—ends with the reverend teetering precariously on the edge of a church steeple in a high wind, and Monty simply supplies the finishing puff to send him toppling to his demise.
Subsequent killings also happen in the most discreet and theatrically inventive fashion: an ice-skating mishap, an attack of killer bees and, in a delicious theatre-insider turn, a real loaded gun for a hammy Hedda Gabler.
The musical’s title, it should be noted, speaks of love as well as murder, and what softens our feelings toward Monty and his lethal agenda are matters of the heart. Beautiful Sibella (Lisa O’Hare) may be shallow, but Monty clearly is mad for her. And when he meets Phoebe (Chilina Kennedy), the kind, aristocratic sister of one of his victims, he falls for her, too. Their romantic duet, “Inside Out,” is one of the score’s high points.
The narrative takes on a macabre gallop as Mays’s parade of fortune’s fools bites the dust at a quickening pace. In the end, the musical takes a different twist from both the book (in which Monty gets away with it) and the film (where he is presumably found out). But it’s a finish that is fitting and fun and in keeping with the light tone of the production—we in the audience feel fulfilled, but not guilty. That adds up to a sublime theatrical escape that nearly gets away with murder.
Frank Rizzo is the theatre critic of the Hartford Courant.
Composer Steven Lutvak discusses the musical inspirations, including Chopin and Noël Coward, behind A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.