If Edward Gorey and Stephen Sondheim ever teamed up to write a Broadway musical, it would look a lot like “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” (which was also turned into the 1949 black comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets”), “A Gentleman’s Guide” won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. The show’s national tour will be playing at Bass Concert Hall through March 25, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.
The overriding sensibility of “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a macabre type of satire, poking fun at the comedy of manners tradition while also casting askance glances at the wealth inequality of today’s world. The witty, whimsical book by Robert L. Freedman doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming sentimental or attempting to wrap up the story with some heavy-handed moralizing. Rather, the satire carries throughout the entire play, in both the dialogue and the songs, co-written by Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak.
To pull off this kind of satire, though, requires two things — inventive direction/design and a sterling cast. Fortunately, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has both.
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With a stage-within-the-stage format complimented by footlights, voice-overs, projections and exquisite costuming, this production is heavily stylized, to an almost Brechtian degree. The scenery is often reminiscent of the kind of intricate, morbidly tongue-in-cheek design work found in Disney’s Haunted Mansion, creating a playground for the actors to deliberately chew the scenery.
Blake Price plays protagonist Monty Navarro, a young British man of the lower classes who learns that he is ninth in line to inherit an earldom from his mother’s family, the D’Ysquiths. Price is pitch-perfect in the role, which subverts the musical theater trope of the plucky, go-getting young protagonist, as Monty decides the best way to inherit his family’s money is to kill the eight people ahead of him in the line of succession. Despite his ghastly deeds, Monty remains likable, thanks to Price’s energetic performance. As his romantic foils, Colleen McLaughlin and Erin McIntyre also delight, with sly takes on the tropes of the bad girlfriend and the naïve ingénue, respectively.
The most demanding, enchanting and delightful performance, though, comes from James Taylor Odom as the entire D’Ysquith family. Remarkably, each family member has his or her own unique physicality and vocality, showcasing Odom’s range and his ability to create richly comedic characters in just a few scenes (and sometimes less than that). He provides a master class in comedy acting that keeps up the momentum of the show even during some of the relative lulls in the narrative.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” has all the bells and whistles of splashy Broadway musicals, but they are used to tell a wicked story where the bad guys win (because there are no good guys). In this, it is a dark, funny satire that truly speaks to our contemporary world.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
When: 8 p.m. March 21-24, 2 p.m. March 24, 1 and 7 p.m. March 25
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive