By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
Upward strivers have always held a special place in the heart of Broadway bards, for the same reason they're at the heart of melodramas and Hollywood pictures: Americans adore them, every time. Last week, two new musicals, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and Little Miss Sunshine, opened with variations on this tried-and-tested theme. The former is, by far, the more charming and witty of the pair — a frequently funny faux-Edwardian romp that pays homage to its predecessors with a wink and a nod.
Fueled by Robert L. Freedman's sharp and witty book and Steven Lutvak's serviceable score, this commercial vehicle motors its twisty plot with two terrific performances. Bryce Pinkham treads with levity and perfect poise through his machinations as Monty Navarro, a penniless young Londoner who discovers, from his late mother's old friend, that he's actually a disenfranchised member of an aristocratic family. A mere eight living relatives stand between him and a titled estate as earl of Highhurst, so Monty applies his guile to their demise, one by one. It's a familiar tale, but executed — pun intended — with wit and delicious farcical timing. (Darko Tresnjak directs with a meticulous hand.)
The star turn here, however, belongs to Jefferson Mays, who plays all of Monty's victims with comic, dexterous aplomb. (He's especially hilarious as the dim and tipsy Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith, who teeters to his doom in a craftily devised staging, and as the loud, boorish Lord Adalbert, who lives the longest and downright demands to be silenced.) To meet, and murder, each of the eight rightful heirs, Monty must first infiltrate their world and make friends — a neat structure that allows just the right amount of time with each of Mays's silk-stocking caricatures. It also effectively pits Monty, the impecunious but ruthless climber, against an entire succession of complacent fat cats. This is a killer anyone can root for: He's a charmer, he's righting his mother's wrong, and his well-heeled victims are consistently odious.
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Little Miss Sunshine, based on a sweet 2006 film, retains only a few of its winning qualities, celebrating the American family's stubborn-but-lovable dysfunctions and its tough-but-teachable struggles to find the good life. Second Stage has recruited a blue-chip boulevard team (book and direction by James Lapine, music and lyrics by William Finn) to put musical legs on this road-trip movie, with mixed results.
The youngest of the Hoovers, Olive (Hannah Nordberg), has a shot at winning a child beauty pageant in California, so the entire family piles into a mini-bus and hits the road, suffering many degradations so their eight-year-old girl can aspire to glamour for a few hours. Lapine devises economical ways to show the family's odyssey across the West, with a giant highway map and GPS screens and actors wheeling their chairs around. Onstage, however, a triteness gets exposed that the film mostly manages to skirt — particularly in the bland songs, which try unconvincingly to endow what are essentially thin comedy-sketch characters with stock-issue heartfelt desires and dreams.
A Gentleman's Guide stays fun because it celebrates and measures our material aspirations without trafficking in sentiment; it either sends up or dismisses any other psychology. Little Miss Sunshine tries to have it both ways, giving every character endearing eccentricities while underlining their supposed breakthroughs. Sometimes killing off your family is a lot more entertaining than saving it.