Sunday, May 11, 2014

A "gentleman's" musical to die for

Take a cup of Gilbert & Sullivan, sprinkle with a generous helping of Sweeney Todd, stir in a pound of Edwardian music hall and decorate with the words "farce" and "melodrama" -- and you'll have the ingenious musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Our trip to the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway was prompted a couple of nights ago by a special 60th birthday celebration.

The show is something of a sleeper hit this season. Bumping along since its November opening with fine reviews and medium box office, it was overshadowed by flashier shows with big stars (Denzel Washington in A Raisin in the Sun, for instance). Then Gentleman's Guide grabbed 10 Tony nominations including best musical, edging out such contenders as Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, If/Then and The Bridges of Madison County

Composer Steven Lutvak and book writer Robert L. Freedman (they're also both credited with lyrics) have taken the obscure 1907 novel Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman (also the basis for the Alec Guinness movie Kind Hearts and Coronets), and created a gleeful caper through the mind of a serial killer.

Unlike Sweeney Todd, the victims are dispatched with such comic dispatch that laughter replaces squeamishness.

The killer in question is an attractive young man named Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) who discovers that he is a member of the aristocratic D'Ysquith (pronounced die'-squith) family and stands to inherit a title and castle, if only eight relatives pop off first.

Monty observes an early victim, the Rev. Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith.
Eager to secure the love of his social-climbing lady, Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), and outraged by the injustice done his late mother, a D'Ysquith disinherited for marrying "a Castilian," Monty begins hunting heirs.

He discovers they all represent varying examples of the fatuous, idiotic and possibly inbred British aristocracy -- and they are all played by a walking actor's textbook named Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony award in 2004 for playing 30+ characters in the play I Am My Own Wife.

Further complications include a sweet distant relative, Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) who is not in the line of succession, thank goodness, and becomes Monty's fiancée. Special mention also has to go to Jane Carr, who plays Miss Shingle, one of those middle-aged busybodies who kicks off the action by revealing the family secret to the hero and ends it when it becomes apparent she has a secret, too.

The framing device has Monty sitting in jail writing his memoirs, having been accused of one of the murders. Cleverly, the action takes place on a red-curtained music-hall stage within the stage. Director Darko Tresnjak (making his Broadway debut) and choreographer Peggy Hickey maintain an arch style, a rapid tempo perfect for the material, stylized movement and physical comedy.

Among the family members played by Mays are the bucktoothed Rev. Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith (and those of us of an Episcopal/Anglican bent will recognize with slight chagrin the tedious clergyman pointing out the historical characteristics of the steeple), the kindly top-hatted Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, Sr., the hearty world do-gooder Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith ("We'll find ourselves some lepers in the Punjab") and obtuse Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, forever riding to hounds.

Jefferson Mays as Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith.
The latter, sporting red hunting jacket, riding crop and fox pelt, delivers one of the songs that could be pure Gilbert & Sullivan: "I Don't Understand the Poor."

"I don't understand the poor.
And they're constantly turning out more.
Every festering slum in Christendom
Is disgorging its young by the score."

One of the joys of Gentleman's Guide is hearing possibly the wittiest lyrics on Broadway set to sprightly melodies (I've still got "I've Decided to Marry You" in my head, as sung by Phoebe, Sibella and Monty).

O'Hare and Worsham's rivalry is worthy of Cecily and Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest, and their lovely soprano voices deliver the songs in pure brittle Victorian style.

In this gloriously giddy show, murder most foul has never been more fun.

*    *    *     *
Now consider the bassoon ...

A lovely measure of the evening's joy was provided by our friend Tom Sefcovic, who plays bassoon in the show's pit orchestra and who kindly gave us a backstage tour after the show.

"I've never actually seen the show," Tom said as we peered into his subterranean domain between the first row of seats and the stage. Here, the musicians are nearly hidden by a passerelle, a stage extension that covers the pit but has a couple of large openings that allow the music to be heard.

Cozying up to a large prop
 with Tom Sefcovic, who plays
 bassoon in the show
A large portion of my 60 years had passed before I was even aware of the bassoon in any significant way apart from being an audience member at a symphony concert. As a player, piano's my voice. But in the last couple of years, some wrinkle occurred in the universe and I've made the acquaintance of at least three bassoonists and begun to appreciate this shy member of the orchestra.

At first, I really had to listen to distinguish its sweet, low tones, so often bullied by the brass, other woodwinds and the always-assertive string sections. Then, of course, I recognized it as "that sound" I'd heard in solos from Scheherazade to Bolero to Peter and the Wolf.  

However, at Gentleman's Guide, with a 13-piece orchestra, I picked out Tom's playing more clearly. The instrument's four-octave range allowed it to punctuate comic moments with deep belchy outbursts. Higher notes often delightfully accented the comedic action and created such effects as the exotic sounds associated with scenes in Egypt or India.

And a little Web support to ... Tom also plays in the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Another bassoonist friend, Mary Olsson, plays in St. Thomas Orchestra. And another website, possibly containing more than you'd ever want to know about the bassoon, but written by someone with an infectious passion for the instrument, is this one by bassoonist, repair mechanic and master craftsman Nicholas Evans:

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