A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal. In this version, the half-Jewish anti-hero of the novel becomes half-Castilian Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), a young man who discovers that he is a member of the titled the D’Ysquith family. His mother having been cast out by her relatives owing to her indiscretions with Monty’s father, finding his place in the family seems impossible – until Monty decides to eliminate the eight heirs (all played by Jefferson Mays) who are stand between him and the earldom. While he is busy with his task, he bounces between two romantic intrigues with childhood sweetheart and social climber Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare) and distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham).
For the most part, the score marries Gilbert and Sullivan-style comic opera with traditional English music hall. This is filtered through the sensibilities of the classic musical comedy format and there are hints of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward and Cole Porter in the ballads. The disc gets off to a witty start as the ensemble offers “A Warning to the Audience”, letting the listener (and the audience, in the theatre) know precisely what they are in for. Highlights include the Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, in which he lists all of the offences that the lower classes present to him; “Poison in My Pocket”, a contrapuntal piece in which Monty plots to bump off one of his unsuspecting victims; “Inside Out”, a touching duet for Phoebe and Monty; “Lady Hyacinth Abroad”, with its politically incorrect nods to the way the British viewed their Empire many moons ago; and “Why Are All the D’Ysquith’s Dying”, in which Lord Adalbert and the ensemble ponder the plague that seems to have fallen upon the family.Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak have married their music and lyrics beautifully. The score has plenty of humour and bears repeated listening. Even when the lyrics works a little too hard, as in “Better With a Man”, or when an accumulation of sounds mars a rhyme scheme (in “Sibella”, ‘lips’ sounds like it desperately wants to rhyme with ‘bliss’, when ‘bliss’ is really rhymes with the ‘kiss’ that comes a line or two later), this is soon forgiven. In any case, it is difficult to see how the humour of “Better With a Man” could be contrived without all of those sweaty double entendres and “Sibella” is just such an exquisite piece musically that the flaw, like those of the woman in question, soon fades away.
The performances are fantastic across the board. Pinkham hits just the right note as Monty, making him sound as endearing as anything with his appealing tenor and ingratiating take on the role. O’Hare and Worsham also both carry off their duties with aplomb and it is wonderful to hear two roles that will offer many musical theatre sopranos, both the soubrette-ish and the lyrical as Gilbert and Sullivan might put it, the opportunity to ply their craft in a world too obsessed with belty, screlty musical theatre performances. Of course, Mays features strongly in his contrasting roles as the entire D’Ysquith family. His ability to characterise and interpret is flawless. True, his pronunciation of the word ‘poor’ somewhat scuttles the rhyme scheme of his first big number (the aforementioned “I Don’t Understand the Poor”), but this is a minor quibble. There is also a delightful cameo performance by Jane Carr as Miss Shingle, the woman who reveals to Monty the truth about his heritage, in the exposition-filled “You’re a D’Ysquith” that follows the opening number.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a fantastic addition to the musical theatre collection of any fan of the form. It is the kind of show that one might think would never get to Broadway – a literate musical comedy based on unlikely source material and which eschews pop music styles from the past few decades. Long may it live, and may it never be forgotten!
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was released by Ghostlight Records on CD on 1 April 2014, having been available digitally since 25 February 2014. The album can be purchased from Ghostlight Records, iTunes, Amazon and any other reputable music outlets.