Staging a show with eight death scenes… and making it hilarious.
How do you make a musical comedy out of the activities of a serial killer? That’s the question that preoccupied the creators of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre. We’re not talking Sweeney Todd here; based on an early 20th century novel, Gentleman’s Guide is an elegant, high-style farce set in England in 1909 and focusing on poor, but honest, Monty Navarro, who discovers that he is eighth in line to a titled fortune. Unable to resist the lure of money and social position, he begins dispatching one member of the D’Ysquith family after another, each of them played by Jefferson Mays in a wildly inventive series of comic turns.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel also inspired the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness as each of Monty’s victims. But Gentleman’s Guide has a style and tone all its own, thanks in part to the efforts of a fiendishly gifted design team.
Some shows feature a play-within-the-play. Gentleman’s Guide features a theatre-within-the-theatre. We’re referring to the Victorian toy theatre occupying center stage, decorated with classical elements, including a medallion bearing the D’Ysquith family name. Alexander Dodge, the show’s scenic designer, says the “stage” on stage focuses the action and provides a stylized comic frame for many of the murder scenes. “What’s more opposite than doing them in a children’s toy theatre?” he asks. To bring some of the killings downstage front and center, Dodge added a passerelle, a kind of promenade that fits around the orchestra pit. This is particularly useful in the scenes featuring Lady Hyancith D’Ysquith, a Juno-esque do-gooder who proves so robust she has to be killed twice.
Dodge’s design is full of sly jokes. For example, a hallway in the manor belonging to Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith is covered with family portraits, which come to life and sing. A wittily realized cemetery scene, right out of Edward Gorey, is the setting for the number “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” in which members of the chorus complain about having to attend so many funerals. Monty’s bachelor quarters, consisting of two rooms linked by a doorway, are the setting for a split-second bedroom farce as he struggles to keep Sibella, his self-aggrandizing lover, apart from Phoebe, the virtuous D’Ysquith cousin he marries.
These classic, almost old school, scenic ideas are combined with Aaron Rhyne’s projections for added comic effect. For example, there is the death of Reverend Lord Ezekiel, a desiccated member of the clergy, who falls from the top of his cathedral; the scene is backed by images showing the view from the top of the church, and, in a startling change of perspective, the vertigo-inducing spiral staircase leading to the ground floor. These images are in black and white. When Ezekiel “falls,” Jefferson Mays backs up while the projection behind him creates a falling sensation; when Mays is all the way upstage, Ezekiel “lands” with a thud, courtesy of sound designer Dan Moses Schreier; Rhyne supplies a projection of a deep red pool of blood that appears to emanate from Ezekiel’s lifeless body. The sequence in which Asquith D’Ysquith, the family rake, is ice-skating with his paramour, is full of pop-up scenery combined with falling-snow and cracking-ice effects courtesy of video projections. The death of the reclusive, and extremely allergic, Henry D’Ysquith takes place in a lovely scenic garden menaced by a swarm of video bees.
Rhyne also points out that each murder has a style all its own. “The scene in the church is film noir, very Hitchcock, while the skating scene is like a vintage holiday card. Some scenes are photorealistic and some are very painterly. A lot of it was based on the character Jefferson would create, and then the costumes [by Linda Cho] would come, and then the scenery based on that.”
Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg notes that his work changes to suit the style of each scene. For example, the death of Ezekiel is largely drained of color to complement the black-and-white projections. For the killing of Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, a hammy actress who blows her brains out during a particularly egregious performance of Hedda Gabler, Rosenberg made use of footlights in the toy theatre. Another set of footlights, placed further downstage, are used to sinister effect in the opening number, “A Warning to the Audience,” in which the chorus urges fainthearted spectators to flee the theatre before the show’s horrors unfold.
Similarly, says Dan Moses Schreier, “the part that was the most fun for me was making the goofiest sound cues possible,” including the thud of Ezekiel on solid ground, the cracking of ice, and the sinister buzz of a swarm of bees. To make sure that the songs’ intricate lyrics were intelligible, he worked closely with Linda Cho and her costume department to determine the optimum placement of mics on each member of the cast. This not as easy as it looks, since Mays plays characters of both sexes, popping in and out of ever-more elaborate costumes every few minutes, including hats and wigs. “At some points, Jefferson is wearing three mics,” says Schreier.
Schreier also cites Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations for a twelve-piece band in helping to create a clear and transparent sound design. “Jonathan is such a master,” he says. “He understands the show’s period, and what the music should sound like as well as the right combination of instruments and how they work together.” He adds that the musical director, Paul Staroba, “understands the needs of the singers and of the sound department.” Schreier stresses that, always, clarity is his main goal. “This is always a given for me,” he says. “What’s the point of doing a musical if you can’t understand the words?”
The work of the design team is key to evoking the laughter that makes the audience complicit in Monty’s crimes. “We found that we needed a visual punch line for every death,” says Rhyne. “Each punch line depended on a different department. The timing of the gags has to be precise. Things that look really silly and off-the-cuff took much more time than we thought they would. This is the most collaborative show I’ve had, and it was really rewarding.”