Annihilation! A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder! Little Me!

I’m not sure that Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is exactly the sort of thing one reads to pass the time on the bus but it worked for me. Coincidentally, it was also almost exactly the length of my bus trip down. (My bus trip back turned into a train trip when it became clear that there would be no bus home. Of course, I was asleep for much of that, but I digress…)

Jeff explores both the territory of Area X (a strange land encroaching into ours) and the territory of a wife’s relationship to her husband with rich, evocative prose. The writing is gripping and immersive and I read it under really awful conditions for something this detailed and subtle. (One would expect a swaying bus crammed full, some guy right behind me who apparently doesn’t believe in headphones and an engine that droned for four hours to knock me out of Area X but they never did.) Because Jeff is awesome, you expect that the gradual unfolding of Area X and of the wife-husband relationship will speak to other in ways that enrich both strands of the novel but are never blatant or ham-fisted and, of course, they do. Furthermore, he pays this off brilliantly at the end with moment of simultaneous revelation that is utterly heart-breaking.

Lots of reviews have name checked Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft. Well, yes. However, there is also a vein of emotion that I don’t associate with Dick. (I’ve read like three Lovecraft stories, sorry.) It’s the simultaneous exploration of both Area X and the main character’s life before Area X that makes the novel for me. I’m really looking forward to the next two books in the series.

So that was the trip down. On to the matinee performance…

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a musical based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: the Biography of a Criminal but not, as the production is at pains to point out, on the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets (which is based on the same novel). This may be like how the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is Not A Hugo (or how the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is Not a Nobel Prize) or not. I’ve never seen the movie. (The Wikipedia synopsis of the movie is similar to what happens in the musical, but they’re both based on the same novel.)

The basic conceit of the novel, movie, and musical is that the male lead is ninth in line to inherit a dukedom. So, of course, for reasons that make sense in context, he decides to kill the eight people ahead of him in line. Like you do. The gimmick is that those eight people are played by the same actor, Alec Guinness in the movie and Jefferson Mays in the musical.

The musical is utterly delightful. Yes, a musical where eight people die can be delightful. BTW, it’s not a surprise that they all die. The show is structured as a flashback starting with the male lead having already become the ninth Duke of D'Ysquith and writing his autobiography. Refreshingly for a musical, the flashback actually resolves.

Bryce Pinkham, as Monty Navarro, is suitably winning and sympathetic is the man who kills everyone between him and dukedom. Jefferson Mays is spectacular as the eight D'Ysquiths in his way. Yes, it’s a showy performance but he’s also a shameless riot. That’s exactly what the part needs. (Also, his singing is surprisingly competent. The score doesn’t ask much of him compared to the rest of the cast and he acquits himself admirably.)

Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham are terrific as Monty Navarro’s love interests. They nail their emotional through lines even as show’s utter daffiness whirls around them. In what is an unusual move for a musical, they’re both sopranos who are never asked to belt. (Coincidentally, the last time I saw Lauren Worsham, she played Amy in Where’s Charley who is also a bubbly, English ingenue.)

Ultimately, I only have a quibble and a half with the show. There are two points where I am so far ahead of the characters that I end up waiting a long time for them to catch up. (And the first point involves things I might find problematic in other contexts but I believe they are mocking themselves there so they get a pass.) This is only half a quibble because what might solve this is the solution to my other quibble.

The score goes so far towards Operetta Land that I wish they’d just gone there and written a full-fledged operetta. It’s a terrific score with attractive tunes and witty lyrics. I’m looking forward to the cast album. Unfortunately, it’s missing a proper act one finale, a proper act two finaletto and a proper act two finale. The show actually has songs at those points so they recognized they needed something at those points. However, just when you expect the musical structure to expand and for the vocal writing become awesome, the work becomes perfunctory instead. It sets up the conditions for something amazing but never successfully follows though. (What ought to be the act two finaletto does eventually become a quintet but it feels dutiful.)

The composer is certainly capable of following through. The trio at the top of act two for Monty and his two lovers is both musically interesting and funny as all hell. It gets the biggest applause of the show.

Anyway, a proper act two finaletto and act two finale would have gone a long way to disguising how little happens in the show’s in the second half of act two. There is a long and noble tradition of awesome musical numbers disguising that nothing happens in act two. I’d have been perfectly fine with that.

What the show does do, though, is wonderful. The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is mostly charming. It’s probably impossible to sit through it without being won over by the end. (You try writing a show where you root for the murderer sometime…)

[Oh, another quibble. The show could have used an actual orchestra. Jonathan Tunick performs his usual miracles of orchestration with the forces he is allowed. However, even he can do only so much with a string quartet, a small assortment of winds and a keyboard. Again, the score is most of the way into Operetta Land, it really needed a fuller, more string-dominant sound.]

So that was the afternoon. The reason for the trip in the first place was the Encores! concert production of Little Me last night.

Little Me is based on a fictional auto-biography written by Patrick Dennis. The conceit of the musical is that Belle Poitrine hires Patrick Dennis (yes, he’s character here) to ghostwrite her auto-biography. So, the musical is structured as a flashback where we see what happened as she tells Patrick Dennis the story of her life. Refreshingly for a musical, the flashback resolves. The gimmick is that the musical’s male lead plays all the suitor she accepts in her life, many of whom die. (Yes, I realize this is starting to sound familiar. However, it really is two different stories told via the same structure and gimmick.)

The score, of course, is the raison d'être for any Encores! concert. This is a classic Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh score. His work is inventive, able to be whatever the show requires. We get the diegetic novelty numbers, vaudeville turns, the non-diegetic songs that illuminate characters’s emotional states. Her work is alternately witty and heartfelt. She deploys the clever wordplay and an occasionally sardonic tone to undercut the sentiment. (The big love duet is “I Love You (As Much As I Am Able).”) This is a show that mocks the tropes of conventional musical comedy and the score, especially her lyrics, put that over wonderfully.

Most of the cast could not be bettered. Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof are at home in their vaudeville turns. Rachel York and Judy Kaye are great as flashback Belle and contemporary Belle respectively. Tony Yazbeck can sing and dance “I’ve Got Your Number” to me any time he wants. He is so sensational, actually, that it’s inadvertently disappointing that Belle doesn’t ultimately end up with his character. Christian Borle, as all of the suitors Belle does end up with, gets lots and lots of material but never gets anything so wonderful as Tony Yazbeck’s one big number.

That points out issues I had with Little Me. Christian Borle is a fine singing actor and works really hard. Ultimately, though, he does not manage to sustain the funny over so many different characters. It makes one recognize the incredible work Jefferson Mays does in his multiple character turn, albeit in a part that requires a somewhat different skill set. E.g., it’s likely that Jefferson Mays doesn’t have the vocal chops to do the Little Me role. Also, Jefferson Mays is playing a part written for him whereas Christian Borle is playing a part written for Sid Caesar.

Neil Simon’s book does not hold up very well. Jokes don’t always land and some of them are telegraphed a minute in advance. Much of that impression is tied up with my impression of Christian Borle though. So much of what the book asks him to do is stuff that is in Sid Caesar’s wheelhouse. It may have been a laugh riot 50 years ago with Sid Caesar. Nowadays with Christian Borle, not so much. (I’m hard-pressed to think of who would be ideal casting today.)

As always with Encores!, I got to see a show that’s unlikely to be revived performed about as well as possible. It’s a terrific score and I’m glad I got to hear it live wonderfully sung with the original orchestrations.

[Edited: It’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, not The. *sigh*]


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