There shouldn’t be anything inherently funny about watching a man run for his life from a swarm of bees. But that’s the slapstick appeal of the frothy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which opened Tuesday, Nov. 28, at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre for a two-night run. (It plays again Wednesday evening.)
I saw the original Broadway production (which won the Tony Award for best musical) starring Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham, and other than the fact that the Saroyan is probably three times the size of the original performance venue, I’m happy to say that much of the show’s chipper intimacy (and the original direction, by Darko Tresnjak) is preserved. Here’s a capsule review:
The plot: A semi-desperate young man in Edwardian England learns after his mother’s death that he’s ninth in line to become an earl. The only problem is that eight people have to die for it to happen.
The clever gimmick: One actor (James Taylor Odom), plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith family, and his costume changes can be as quick as 15 seconds.
The tone: Old-fashioned, vaudevillian, silly, wildly exaggerated. Think Gilbert & Sullivan operetta meets “Benny Hill” with pinches of “Austin Powers” and “Murder She Wrote” thrown in. One of the appeals of the script is how it remains resolutely in the time period, without the constant barrage of contemporary references that seem to inhabit most musicals these days, even ones set in an earlier time. There are no Trump jokes, no Britney Spears allusions, no sly references to online porn or cell phones. Sure, you can imagine people in 1910 being shocked at the comic-book expliciteness of the violence — there’s even a clever decapitation — but it all seems possible and plausible for the era.
The acting: Very, very broad — and it’s supposed to be. Odom is like a comic tornado periodically unleashed to wreak good-natured havoc. Blake Price is a crisp and centered Monty — my favorite performance of the night.
The singing: Quite strong, with Colleen McLaughlin and Erin McIntyre doing some impressive belting.
The production design: I’m impressed with how close it seems to the Broadway production. (I did miss the singing family portraits, however.)
The head-scratcher: I completely lost track of the death of one of the D’Ysquiths: that of Lady Hyacinth, whom Monty sent off to Africa, where he hopes she’ll be eaten by cannibals. But in the second act she returns. I seem to remember this murder being handled in a more cohesive fashion in New York involving an axe and a collapsing gangplank. In the touring production, the narrative is shouted out by newsboys, and since I couldn’t understand a word they said, the moment fell flat.
The takeaway: “Gentleman’s Guide” is a clever romp and often very funny, though you have to let yourself be immersed in the frenzied comic sensibility of the piece to enjoy the material fully. I suspect it’s an acquired taste. (Two comments on my Facebook page this morning: “It was fabulous tonight!” And: “Definitely not our favorite of the season.”) If anything, it’s a pleasure to see a lesser-known musical make it to Fresno.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, and Wednesday, Nov. 29, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $29-$69.
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