The 2013 Broadway hit, coming to the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle July 12-31, had good source material: the film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” with Alec Guinness playing eight parts.
Apart from a few exceptions like “Les Miserables” (with its bloody Paris insurrection) or the recent slasher-fest “American Psycho,” you rarely see a high body count in a Broadway musical.
But in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” coming to the 5th Avenue Theatre on July 12 on its first national tour, homicides multiply apace as the crafty young protagonist, a callow British climber named Monty, handily fells numerous relations on his way to an aristocratic title — with a pre-Brexit fortune attached.
Winner of a best musical Tony Award, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” arrived on Broadway in 2013, in a season flush with song-studded theatrical remakes of popular movies. Most of them — notably “Rocky,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and Woody Allen’s “Bullets over Broadway” — divebombed at the box office.
‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” plays July 12-31 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle, tickets start at $36 (206- 625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
But a show derived from a revered if somewhat obscure 1949 English film comedy showcasing the shape-shifting talents of the late actor Alec Guinness was the dark horse that bested them all.
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As other movie-based tuners with much better name recognition withered and died, “Gentleman’s Guide” delighted critics (in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood praised its “frolicsome” charms), scooped up a lion’s share of Drama Desk and Tony prizes and lasted more than 900 performances on Broadway.
Why? Credit it to the warmly praised, faux-operetta score and witty book for the show, by author-lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak. And to the 44 (yes, 44) patient producers it took to underwrite the $7.5 million transfer to Broadway, after the successful tryouts of “Gentleman’s Guide” in other cities.
But also give mad props to the source material for the show: “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” one in a series of now classic, low budget, black-and-white romps that established Ealing Studios as a leading purveyor of prime British film comedies featuring such nimble players as Guinness and Peter Sellers. (They must have boosted post-World War II morale in Britain considerably.)
Inspired by the Edwardian-era novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” by Roy Horniman, the movie unfolds in the form of confessional memoirs by a handsome, ingenious and penniless fellow who believed his only route to riches and a prosperous marriage was to systematically bump off those ahead of him in line for the family fortune.
The great gimmick in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (a progenitor of such black-comedy cozies as the British TV series “Midsomer Murders”) is to have all eight of those rival heirs portrayed by one chameleonic actor. Guinness is superb as he morphs from timorous pastor to grand lady to stuffy military man, each deserving of their own distinctive, tailor-made demise.
In addition to the sophisticated word play and blithe conventions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and America’s apparently ceaseless fascination with the fashions and foibles of Old World British aristocracy, the creators of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” also seized upon the eternally crowd-pleasing gambit of a single actor quick-shifting into many personae before their eyes.
On Broadway, Jefferson Mays earned accolades for his relay race through eight roles — achieved, I can attest, with maximum hilarity and a minimum of sweat. In the touring edition, New York actor John Rapson does the honors.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” will be capering at the 5th Avenue through July 31. But whether to whet one’s appetite for the show or just to savor the genius of the protean Guinness, it would be no crime to also take in “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” which is available on DVD and streaming platforms.