Surely there is nothing quite so vexing as having eight annoying relatives ahead of you in line to inherit the family fortune. Such is the plight of Montague D'Ysquith Navarro, would-be Ninth Earl of Highhurst and antihero of the musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," now playing at Bank of America Theatre through Oct. 11. Resourceful in the manner of a true British gentleman, Monty spends the bulk of the show dispatching the D'Ysquiths that stand between him and his inheritance.
Think Agatha-Christie-on-nitrous and you've got a sense of the musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics). The national tour has kicked off in Chicago with Yugoslavian-born director Darko Tresjnak at the helm of a show he steered to multiple Tony Awards in 2014.
We spoke with Tresjnak, 49, shortly before this week's opening. What follows are experts from a conversation about the show's subversive nature, why D'Ysquiths are both appealing and appalling and whether it's better to die from falling through the ice on a frozen pond or from ingesting poison or from getting eaten by cannibals.
Outside "Sweeney Todd", musical theater songs about murdering your own family are a fairly rare breed. How does the music serve the story here?
Tresjnak: People keep asking me if this show is like Sweeney Todd. No. Monty's not like Sweeney. He's a polite, kind, English gentleman. Who happens to kill people.
The conventional wisdom about musicals is that they show people on a mission, and when that mission overcomes them emotionally, they turn to music to express themselves because just talking isn't enough. In that sense, "Gentleman's Guide" is pretty conventional. You've got a man on a mission, who sings when emotions get heightened. It just so happens his mission involves murdering a bunch of delightfully revolting relatives.
There's a real retro-charm to "Gentleman's Guide" - the set is designed to look like an old time vaudeville stage, the music has a tin pan alley feel, the acting is hilariously over-the-top and the costumes are pure Edwardian eleganza. Did you approach the show with an eye toward vaudeville?
DT: Since it's set in England, I'd say it's more in the style of English music hall tradition. But there's lots of things in there I wanted to pay homage to - the ice-skating scene was inspired by Sonja Henie movies, the garden screen by Nelson Eddy movies. I've also got references to "Vertigo" and "Rear Window." I felt like a kid with my hand in a cookie jar directing this, playing off all these previous works that I've loved for so long.
But it's not just retro. It's also subversive, a rather scathing commentary on upper-class hypocrisy. For example, the song "I Don't Understand the Poor" - those lyrics could have been pulled from a Fox News broadcast. That subversiveness is part of what attracted me to the piece. I was born in a Communist country. Boy, did I run away from that. (Tresjnak first came to the U.S. in 1976. He became a U.S. citizen after graduating from college here.)
One actor plays all of the D'Ysquiths, which obviously means there are some extraordinary quick-changes required. What's the fastest one?
DT: Fourteen seconds. He exits as this awful actress performing "Hedda Gabler" and enters the next moment as an elderly lawyer. I don't like to watch it. It stresses me out.
Is it true that you organized the neighborhood kids when you were still in Yugoslavia and staged your own Olympics Ceremonies to coincide with the 1972 Games?
DT: True. I cut out medals and everything. We had a Fulbright Scholar living in our house, and he'd brought me a lot of toys from America. That meant I had a lot of power - I told the other kids if they wanted to play with my toys, they had to be in my shows. We also did puppet shows - I'd make puppets out of plastic bottles. I think it must be very hard when you don't know what you want to do with your life- I was lucky. I knew from when I was very young that I wanted to be in theater.
There's lots of ways to die in this show. What's your
DT:I would have to say plunging off a tower. Yeah, definitely the tower.
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" continues through Oct. 11 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets start at $30. For more information, go to broadwayinchicago.com.
Photos Courtesy of Broadway in Chicago