The scuttlebutt on this one started back in 2012, when it premiered at the Hartford Stage, followed by a run at the Old Globe in San Diego. It was widely touted as the musical comedy that would match Book of Mormon for sheer belly laughter. And preview audiences agreed that lead actor Jefferson Mays, who had won a best actor Tony in 2004 for I Am my Own Wife, was outdoing himself for this one. Sure enough, the show did win the 2014 Best Musical and three other Tony’s. Mays was again nominated and lost only to wunderkind Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig.
Be that as it may, just as soon as Gentlemen’s Guide… opened in New York last November, friends-in-the-know were reporting back that it was a not-to-be-missed gem. And they were right. It was also a fast cure for the serious doldrums I had fallen into having seen The Maids the same afternoon.
There’s not a whole lot to the story itself. Young ne’er-do-well Monty Navarro, delightfully played by fellow Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham, learns he is the heir to the estate of Lord d’Isquith, should he survive the eight heirs who come before him. All eight are quickly dispatched in clever and hilarious ways until he succeeds in becoming Lord d’Isquith himself, or does he? The hook is that Jefferson Mays brilliantly plays all eight d’Isquith victims, young and old, male and female, which often requires impressive, lightning-fast costume changes.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, think back to (or look up) the classic old British Ealing Studios comedies of the 1950’s, led by Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring the masterful Alec Guinness. Both that film and Gentlemen’s Guide… were based on an old novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. Both the film and the musical exhibit a very wry and literate kind of satire, hilarious and horrifying at the same time, but not horrifying enough to be “sick” humor. It’s primarily based on old-fashioned melodrama, with its sight-gags, dead-pan takes, and outrageously choreographed speedy movements. Seriously, don’t spend any time looking for depth or relevance here. It’s all about energy and fun. Still, Mays has captured that same sense of silly sarcasm at which Guinness excelled, making contemporary fun of racists, prigs, class war, religion, and politics, but set in post-Victorian England in 1909. His extraordinarily pliable face and near-perfect sense of comic timing make him irresistible.
I confess to waiting for Jefferson Mays to come back from an undoubtedly well-deserved vacation before getting a ticket to Gentlemen’s Guide … I’m sure his stand-in was brilliant while he was gone, but with Mays’ and Pinkham’s help I laughed louder and longer for this show that I have for any other in a long time. Well actually, the laughter in Book of Mormon was as loud and long, if a bit guiltier (See 8/2/11 Post).