Agatha Christie meets Mel Brooks as the national touring company of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” comes to New Brunswick’s State Theatre. There are two shows remaining: April 7 at 2 and 8 p.m.; visit stnj.org.
The unlikely winner of the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Musical in 2014, this slight but madcap farce may not be the best (or even funniest) musical you’ll see this year, but it certainly delivers more than enough laughs to make it a rewarding evening of theater.
Imagine, if you will, a charming serial killer let loose among the inbred gentry of a British family in the early 1900s; Sweeney Todd roaming the halls of Downton Abbey. That’s the gist, as the impoverished but ambitious Montague D’Ysquith Navarro (a charming Blake Price) discovers he’s eighth in line to the earldom of the D’Ysquith family. His mother, a distant cousin to the current Earl, had been disinherited when she ran off to marry a Castilian musician, and raised Monty in Dickensian poverty, scrubbing floors to keep him in knickers and biscuits.
Monty soon launches a plot to bump off the other heirs in hopes that he might win the hand of his mistress Sibella (Colleen McLaughlin), who married for money but still dallies with Monty whenever possible. Robert L. Freedman’s plot tangles a bit more when Monty falls madly in love with Phoebe D’Ysquith (Erin McIntyre), a distant cousin, setting up a classic love triangle (and one funny, slapstick scene in which Monty has to juggle both women in different rooms of his apartment).
The final twist of “Gentleman’s Guide” comes when all of Monty’s victims turn out to be played by the same actor, the rubber-faced James Taylor Odom, who morphs from a toothy cleric, a bosomy dowager, a closeted nance, a musclebound gym rat and a privileged playboy to, finally, the jodhpur-wearing Earl himself.
As Monty inventively dispatches his family tree — one falls through the ice, another is stung to death by bees, and a third is devoured by cannibals — his fortunes rise. He’s taken into the family business, finds success as a stockbroker, and winds up engaged to the virginal Phoebe while still canoodling with the voluptuous Sibella.
It all goes horribly wrong at the end, of course, and then several clever twists of fate set things right again (sort of). It’s all a bit silly but often quite funny; it’s just not “My Fair Lady.” Even the clever sight gags don’t compensate for the familiarity of the entire affair; you wait for the anarchy of the Marx Brothers but the story slogs along more like an extended sketch on SNL.
The score, by first-timers Freedman and Steven Lutvak, parodies the style of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and British music hall comedies, with broadly drawn characters, rapid-fire patter songs, and the requisite love ballads. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, better, elsewhere, and you won’t walk home humming any of the tunes.
The cast, all plucked from regional theater with no Broadway (or even national) credits among them, more than deliver. Price’s Monty may lack the hint of guile or wiliness you’d expect from a practiced killer, but his rakish enthusiasm proves infectious; like Tony Soprano, he’s a villain you can’t help but root for. McLaughlin and McIntyre, as Monty’s love interests, bring coloratura trills and operatic flourishes to their parts, with truly lovely voices. And Odom as the eight doomed D’Ysquiths finds just the right accent for each part, aided by extravagant costumes, wigsand facial appliances that help conjure up a parade of familiar British archetypes.
Freedman’s book frames the story by having Monty — in prison for murder — writing in his journal to tell us his story, so we know what’s coming before it even happens. But there are still quite a few jolly surprises along the way. You may have to strain to keep up with the lyrics, since many shoot off jokes and puns and clever wordplay at a machine-gun pace, but you’ll find “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” while not life-changing, undeniably entertaining.
I liked the Broadway version a lot. With touring companies appearing in NJ, it is often difficult to know in advance how good the cast is.