“I’m Old Fashioned” sang Fred Astaire in his indelible 1942 recording of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, the new musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), owes less to that earlier songwriting team and more to Gilbert & Sullivan, My Fair Lady, operetta and Sondheim. But this new Broadway show, a jolly spoof with a tart first act and a sentimental let-down of a second, proudly wears old-fashioned virtues on its pinafores.
And, as the story takes place in Edwardian England, on its morning coats and top hats too. The handsome and poor Monty Navarro, given poise by Bryce Pinkham, discovers upon his mother’s death that she came from a noble British family, the D’Ysquiths, who cast her out due to her marriage to a Castilian. Only eight relations stand between Monty and the title of Earl of Highhurst. He sets out to dispatch them all.
If this is all sounding vaguely familiar, no, it isn’t based on Agatha Christie in her countdown mode (And Then There Were None). The story, which asks us quite preposterously to believe that Monty is a lovable rogue bent on understandable revenge rather than a twit engaged in serial murder, comes from Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman.
The book also inspired the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, whose star, Alec Guinness, played eight roles. But the protean Guinness didn’t have to do the quick costume changes performed by Jefferson Mays, the actor conjuring the magic here. Under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, and with a jewel-box set affording the backdrops, Mays may execute his virtuoso turns with sweat-soaked effort, yet each had my audience grinning wide.
Choosing a favourite portrait from Mays’s stately-home gallery is as difficult as deciding which Mitford sister was wackiest. If pressed, however, I would choose two. There is the philanthropic and bosomy Lady Hyacinth, who carries a disabled-rights placard reading “United for Imbeciles and Idiots”. (Oh, Monty Python!) And there is the snobbish Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, whose comic number showcases Freedman and Lutvak’s gift for silly lyrics. To wit:
“I don’t understand the poor.
And they’re constantly turning out more.
Every festering slum
Is disgorging its young by the score.”