SAN DIEGO— All the buzz about "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," the clever new musical comedy pastiche that seems to be wending its Edwardian way to Broadway, is redeemed by the ingenious versatility and quick-change athleticism of actor Jefferson Mays.
In this delightfully silly, if not fully cooked show, written by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, Mays impersonates a series of English aristocrats — the eccentric fruit from the snooty D'Ysquith family tree — each of whom gets knocked off under circumstances that can only be considered highly suspicious. How likely is it, after all, that the eight people standing between Monty Navarro (Ken Barnett) and the title of Earl of Highhurst would come to an untimely demise?
The stage of the Old Globe Theatre, where the show opened Wednesday under the stylish direction of Darko Tresnjak, has the look of a Victorian toy theater, whimsically interpreted by scenic designer Alexander Dodge. This is the perfect setting for Mays' transformative puppetry.
Using his own boyish middle-aged self as the doll and his elastic wit as the animating force, he turns each of the snooty victims he plays into a comic figure so deliciously unique that adults will have no choice but to succumb to the giggling rapture of this ludicrous tale based on Roy Horniman's novel "Israel Rank." (The plot will ring a bell for those who saw the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which is loosely adapted from the same source.)
No one contains multitudes quite like Mays, who won a Tony for his starring role in Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," a thronging solo performance that turned out characters the way a world famous magician pulls scarves out of a seemingly empty canister. In "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," he trots out an equally amazing parade of swells, dandies, snobs, cranks and other London oddballs, circa 1909.
One minute singing "I Don't Understand the Poor" as the supercilious Lord Adalbert, the next luring Monty into a duet of "Better With a Man" as effete Henry, Mays wrings every ounce of drollery from Freedman and Lutvak's lyrics, one of the musical's key strengths. The lunatic twinkle in the actor's eye varies with each wardrobe change (Linda Cho's costumes have just the right air of bespoke buffoonery), but his cuckoo conviction diminishes not a jot.
And how could it when the songs he performs ramrod straight approach the satiric quackery of Gilbert and Sullivan? Let a taste of Lord Adalbert's signature ditty suffice: "We teach them to read / But do they succeed? / When they're hungry and frail / We feed them in jail! / We send them off to war! / I don't understand — /I'm not being grand! / I don't understand the poor!"
Freedman's book hasn't fully sorted out the nature of Monty's character. There's something undecided about this protagonist, who for all his homicidal activity is a strangely passive fellow, dominated by the women around him even as he tries to weasel a selfishly happy arrangement for himself among them.
When we first encounter Monty he's in prison awaiting the verdict of his murder case. He decides to leave "a purely factual record" of how he became the ninth Earl of Highhurst. The musical then travels back in time to a fateful visit from Miss Shingle (Rachel Izen), an all-knowing servant who informs him of his D'Ysquith heritage and the unfair way his mother was disinherited for marrying, horror of horrors for the family's haughty fox-hunting ranks, a Castilian musician.
Monty runs to tell Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) the news of his pedigree, but this would-be princess is too busy preparing for an already wealthy suitor. Thus Monty's jealously is inflamed and the idea of catapulting himself from nonentity to a "towering man among men" is born.
It takes some time (in the overlong first act) for Monty to hatch his murderous scheme. The character is both a reluctant felon and an accidental opportunist — qualities that don't make him the most dynamic engine of a musical, but if he were simply a bloodthirsty killer it would be impossible to take any amusement from his antics.
Barnett's Monty cuts a dashing figure, handsomely insecure and definitely more skittish than sadistic. His everlasting attraction to the superficial Sibella doesn't redound to his credit, but then it's not always clear what Phoebe D'Ysquith (Chilina Kennedy), his more respectable love interest, sees in him.
With most of the killing completed by intermission, the second act is largely devoted to the spectacle of Monty trying to have his Sibella and his Phoebe too. Barnett has a pleasant singing voice and an amiable stage presence, but the character's personality needs to be more sharply rendered for us to care one way or the other about his fate. The musical's creators haven't yet found the right balance between his meekness and ambition.
Lutvak's music, mixing Mozart and Noël Coward, English operetta and bouncy music hall beats, primes the audience for farcical adventure, though the sound of the orchestra, under the music direction of Mike Ruckles, sounded disappointingly thin on Wednesday night. Although O'Hare and Kennedy bring sublime vocal gifts to the production, the show, featuring Peggy Hickey's modest choreography, often seems tailor-made for a cast of Rex Harrisons talking their way harmoniously through patter numbers.
Of course, Mays is as brilliantly adept in this department as he is in creating an entire card deck of overbred fops and fools. His level of comedy may set an unreachably high bar for the rest of Tresnjak's game ensemble, but it's his prolific originality that gives "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" its liftoff.
'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder'
Where: The Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends April 14.
Tickets: Start at $39
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes