One way or another, musicals these days are usually acts of nostalgia. Usually they stir memories of music of the past through "Greatest Hits" shows like WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, MAMMA MIA, BEAUTIFUL, JERSEY BOYS, etc., through revivals of older shows or scores (CHICAGO, CINDERELLA) or through new music by composers associated with an earlier era (Cyndi Lauper, Elton John). Sometimes they recreate on stage movies that may have resonance for us (LION KING, NEWSIES). Even a great new musical like FUN HOME is a show about memories of the past. Is there a musical now that uses contemporary music to tell a contemporary story? The last one I recall was NEXT TO NORMAL.
The delightful new show, A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, is another example of the musical as nostalgia. I enjoyed the show -- it is impossible not to -- but I couldn't help thinking about it as another act of love for past musicals. If this comic tale of a serial killer in Edwardian England had been written in the 1940s by someone like Frank Loesser, it would have had music that sounded 1940s (think of Loesser's score for WHERE'S CHARLEY, set in the same period). Steven Lutvak's tuneful, inventive score for GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE sounds like a much better version of a Noel Coward or Ivor Novello score. Filled with clever patter songs (Lutvak and his co-lyricist Robert L. Freedman are masterful librettists) and really lovely ballads and ensembles, the score is a joy to hear. It's pastiche, but very good pastiche. Freedman's book is economical and very funny and Darko Tresnjak's direction is swift and imaginative, farce with a light touch.
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AN MURDER is a vehicle for two terrific performers. Jefferson Mays plays nine male and female characters. It's a tour de force, one of the best comic performances I have seen on a stage. Mays wisely doesn't milk his material as a ham like Mark Rylance would. His touch is light, but deft. I have never seen Bryce Pinkham before. He also plays his role, Monty Navarro, a serial killer who loses control of this master plan (his victims sometimes die before he can do his dirty work), and of his simultaneous wooing of the vampy Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) and the chaste Phoebe (Lauren Worsham). One of the funniest scenes in the show is a classic farce sequence in which Monty tries to keep his two lady friends in separate rooms. Pinkham has perfect comic timing and a near elastic body. He is also blessed with good looks and a lovely singing voice. O'Hare and Worsham have the kind of lyric soprano voices common to musical leading ladies before personal microphones (think Doretta Morrow, Kathryn Grayson or the young Barbara Cook). This is a relatively small show -- a total cast of thirteen.
The sets and projections are simple, but perfect for the tone of the show. Linda Cho's costumes for the women are beautiful to look at and the nine costumes for Mays' characters are part of the show's fun.
The theatre was not full on the New Years Eve matinee despite the strong reviews. Perhaps the title isn't catchy enough or the marketing isn't aggressive enough. Comedy seems to be a hard sell on Broadway these days. I found A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER a joyous way to ring out the old year and ring in the new. What better way to celebrate the passage of time than to have a good laugh? If you want to see really fine comic performances, don't miss this gem of a show.
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. Walter Kerr Theatre. December 31. 2013.