If you hear there’s a musical on the loose about a serial killer, would you put your head under your covers and pray for your life?
Pay no attention to the ghoulishly sung prologue that forewarns audiences that "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," the show they are about to witness at the Fox Theatre, may be morbidly disturbing.
Rest assured, gentle readers, everything about this zany musical comedy about a penniless Edwardian lad who murders eight relatives so he can inherent the family fortune, the country estate and the title of his lordship is uttered with operatic wink.
Monty Navarro, the would-be British earl at the center of Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s raucous musical comedy, is no Sweeney Todd.
As played by Blake Price, he’s a handsome, freshly scrubbed chap in love with a dismissive social climber named Sibella (Colleen McLaughlin). After his mother dies, Monty learns she was a member of the wealthy D’Ysquith clan. The heartless snobs disowned her for marrying beneath her circumstances. He’s ninth in line to the estate, and it’s probable that he’ll never see a shilling.
Or will he?
With a period-appropriate patter-song score that pays tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan and a farcical structure worthy of Monty Python and Charles Ludlam, “Gentleman’s Guide” is a clever, somewhat long-winded parody of an English Gothic thriller. It is populated by an assortment of oddball D’Ysquith relatives who are poised to see their fortunes reversed.
That they all bear an uncanny resemblance to one another — down to the bulging eyes, exaggerated overbite and unfortunate hair — is no coincidence. They are all portrayed by the same fellow.
That would be one James Taylor Odom, a Brenau University-educated Lawrenceville native and quick-change artist par excellence. In part after part, from the drunken priest at the top of a bell tower (a Hitchcock riff) to the globe-trotting Lady Hyacinth, Odom inhabits the skin of this gallery of grotesques. It’s one of the most deliciously detailed, frenetically paced comedic workouts you’ll ever see — a series of cameos that makes Price’s single character study seem like a walk in the park.
Though director-choreographer Peggy Hickey and company deliver an exhilarating spectacle, the first act does run on, and once you're in on the joke, it becomes somewhat repetitive. Yet there are twists in the form of a second love interest for Monty (Phoebe D'Ysquith, played by Erin McIntrye), and a funny sequence in which he's literally caught between his two paramours.
Alexander Dodge devises a grandiose set-within-a-set: Much of the action transpires within a gilded proscenium draped in red velvet. Aaron Rhyne’s projections signal changes of venue, from the dusty, threadbare sitting room of Monty’s late mum to the grand hall that he is bound to conquer, and many points in between. Linda Cho contributes lavish (and sometimes very funny) costumes.
Though the conceit is expressed as a “guide” that Monty crafts from behind bars, I’m not sure that’s entirely clear from the get-go. As he sits at a desk scribbling his thoughts, you almost feel he’s merely recalling the past. This is the first time I’ve seen the show, and while I get that Monty is supposed to come off as rather meek and mild, his performance, while elegant, is rather restrained.
Make no mistake. This is Odom’s show. He is astonishing, and virtuosic. Among the many choice tidbits, too numerous to mention here, is “Better With a Man,” in which Monty meets up with his lisping, beekeeping bachelor cousin Henry on a sparkling day. It’s a howler.
“Gentleman’s Guide” is based on Roy Horniman’s strange 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” which was later refashioned as the 1949 British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Though the Broadway version was created in America, in subject matter, musical design and tone, it is British to the core. If it scares you, you have missed the point.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”
Through March 18. 7:30 p.m. March 14-15; 8 p.m. March 16; 2 and 8 p.m. March 17; 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 18. $33.50-$109. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.
Bottom line: Priceless.
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