HARTFORD, Conn. -- Rarely has murder been committed with as much wit, style and charm as it is being committed at Hartford Stage where an impressive brand new musical with an unwieldy, if perfectly apt, title, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," is being given a wieldy, stylish, thoroughly entertaining production.
Developed at Sundance Institute Theater Lab, this oh-so-smart musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), is drawn from the 1907 novel, "Israel Rank" by Roy Horniman, which also was the source for that delicious 1949 British film, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," a black comedy that starred Dennis Price as a distant outcast of a well-to-do, to say the least, family and Alec Guinness as the eight D'Ysquith family members who stand in the way of the outcast inheriting the family fortune.
Here, the outcast, Monty Navarro, is played by Ken Barnett with a smooth blend of audacity, confidence, resourcefulness and a certain vulnerability, especially at those moments when events he can't quite control take over. His Monty also is quick to recognize and seize opportunity when it comes his way, which it does when the first of the D'Ysquiths he encounters, a locally prominent clergyman, falls to his death from a church steeple in an inventive scene that impudently evokes Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" -- and gets away with it.
Navarro narrates his tale from his jail cell as he sets down his memoir, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," as he awaits sentencing for his crimes. Set in Edwardian England, it's an audacious tale, which finds Navarro caught between two women-- the self-serving, self-centered libidinous Sibella (a wonderful Lisa O'Hare) who finds in Navarro a satisfying sexual partner. But it's not until the D'Ysquith fortune seems truly to be in Monty's grasp that Sibella's lust turns to love.
In the meanwhile, Monty's homicidal social-climbing puts him in contact with the bright, modest, spinsterly, emotionally guarded but no less engaging and tough Phoebe D'Ysquith (an absolutely beguiling Chilina Kennedy). Indeed, one of the show's riskiest-- and, as it turns out, masterly-- moments is the farcical second act number, "I've Decided to Marry You," in which Phoebe unexpectedly comes calling on Monty to tell him, as the song title suggests, she's decided to marry him. All the while, Sibella is secreted away in Monty's bedroom, determined to find out what's going on in the living room between Monty and Phoebe.
Poised opposite Barnett's Monty is Jefferson Mays as the eight D'Ysquith family members who, one by one -- by hook, crook, accident, heart attack -- meet their maker.
It's a big undertaking. Mays commands the stage in paradoxically unassuming ways. This is the kind of tour de force work that blends seamlessly into the ensemble around him. For all his stylish, calculated excesses, Mays remains, remarkably, within bounds. In each of his characterizations, Mays grazes that line that separates character from caricature, seamlessly folding one into the other with consummate artistry.
At times, Lutvak's music bears traces of Stephen Sondheim in "Sweeney Todd" mode; Lerner and Lowe; Gilbert and Sullivan -- incorporating all of that into an evocative style that, together with the lyrics he has constructed with Freedman, brings melody and melodic singing back to the American musical stage
Darko Tresnjak has directed "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" with a knowing hand. This is the tightest, most focused, most sure-handed direction he has turned out since coming to Hartford Stage last season to take over the reigns as artistic director.
Murder, love, greed, abandonment, justice, wit and a neat twist at the end -- all handsomely mounted, richly sung and acted. In addition, "A Gemtleman's Guide to Love & Murder" is about as smart as it comes in theater. What more could you want?