Three songs into the second act of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, the new musical at the Walter Kerr, comes a trio for hero Monty (Bryce Pinkham) and the upper-class heroines Phoebe (Lauren Worsham) and Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), both of whom have decided they can't live without him. "I've Decided to Marry You" is the title, and it is a veritable soufflé of musical comedy froth. Not least of the song's charms is the performance of Mr. Pinkham, almost literally pulled apart by his man-hungry mistress and the decent young widow who has deigned to accept him. This is staged around a skeletal structure representing a narrow hallway separating two doors, with Pinkham's limbs draped over the posts as if he is on parallel bars. (Theatregoers who saw the original production of On the Twentieth Century thirty-five years ago are likely to envision a similarly-athletic, crawling-the-walls performance by a then-unknown actor named Kevin Kline.)
The problem with "I've Decided to Marry You," alas, is that it is 100 minutes into the intelligently amusing and consistently entertaining Gentleman's Guide but only the first song to score a hearty knockout. The music by Steven Lutvak is engaging and literate throughout, while the lyrics by Lutvak and librettist Robert L. Freedman abound with delicious wordplay and unlikely-but-flavorful rhymes. Mr. Freedman's book, too, takes the tale of a likable chap who discovers that he is "the son of the daughter of the grandson of the nephew of the second Earl of Highhurst" -- and thus the eighth in line to the title -- and keeps it spinning nicely. This is based on the forgotten 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, which remains known courtesy of the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets. That's the droll classic in which Dennis Price knocks off eight relatives, all played by Alec Guinness.
The songs of Gentleman's Guide are consistently charming but almost never take off. In this, the show contrasts with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that ragtag Music Hall romp from 1985 that was revived last season. Drood is less accomplished in the writing but includes a handful of songs that raise the proverbial roof. There is little roof-raising in Gentleman's Guide -- it is not that kind of show, and I suppose that showstoppers just wouldn't be gentlemanly -- and that's the only thing that prevents this admirable musical from being wildly entertaining instead of mildly entertaining.
Pinkham, who made a strong impression in the 2011 concert version of Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday and less of an impression as the villain in the quickly-forgotten Ghost The Musical, does a delightful job as the innocent lad who finds himself blithely committing murder. He is overshadowed by Jefferson Mays, in the juicy part of the eight relatives. Mays (I Am My Own Wife) makes the most of his opportunities, but only two or three of the eight impersonations are full enough to stand on their own; the others seem variations of the same. This is in large part due to the nature of the material; in this stage adaptation, Mays -- as each of the victims -- must come on, sing a song, and be killed. The segments that work best are the ones in which director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge and projection designer Aaron Rhyne come up with their niftiest visual tricks, irrespective of the actual songs and Mays' performance of same.
Tresnjak and Dodge have devised an effective production concept, with a full-sized Victorian toy theatre serving as a stage-within-a-stage. (Yes, there are ancestral portraits on the wall in which the faces are replaced by chorus members so they can sing a song.) Linda Cho's costumes colorfully supplement the set, and the score is orchestrated by the master, Jonathan Tunick. How novel -- and welcome -- to hear a new Broadway score with English horn, bassoon, French horn and no synthesizers!
Everything about the show is so likable. I left Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder having had a perfectly pleasant time with a pair of talented new theatre-writers, in the company of a delightful cast. But rousing? No.