By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
England’s Edwardian era (1901-1910) must have been lovely for those at the top.
Edward VII spent most of his life as a playboy prince, waiting for his mother, Victoria, to pass him the throne, and his not-so-long reign was an elegant time of high-living for the gentry, more difficult for the less well-off.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” an already-acclaimed new musical coming to the Old Globe on March 8, is about the discarded relative of an aristocratic family who has enough charm, but not money, to enjoy the Edwardian lifestyle ... until he finds out he is ninth in line to inherit a dukedom. All he has to do to turn things around is wipe out the other eight heirs.
Ken Barnett plays Monty Navarro, who discovers that murder is easier than love. All eight of the D’Ysquith family victims-to-be are played by multi-award- winning Jefferson Mays, who received an M.F.A. in theater at UCSD in 1991 and jump-started his career with "I Am My Own Wife," a one-man/40-character tour-de-force that began as a play-in-progress at Sundance Theater Institute in 2000, gained momentum as a Page-to-Stage project at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2001, and earned him a Tony on Broadway in 2004.
The play also introduced him to his own wife — Susan Lucas, who was associate director of the Broadway production and director when the company toured.
“The tour was sort of our extended honeymoon,” he said. “And we’ve been traveling around together ever since.”
Life is good for Mays, not least because of “A Gentleman’s Guide,” his first foray into musical comedy. He did play Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” a few years back, asked to step into the role after starring in “Pygmalion” on Broadway, but as he noted, that part doesn’t call for real singing, or dancing.
Mays does plenty of both in this show, and he loves it. “It’s a glorious, giddy ride,”he said. “Doing a play is like dead-lifting weights sometimes, but doing a musical is like stepping on a flying carpet, and then taking off. Standing in the wings before I go on, listening to the orchestra tuning up, I get such a feeling of excitement. Even the colors of the set make me happy. It’s just a sensual delight.”
Of course, it’s not all fly-ing carpets. “Some of the most difficult stuff I do, nobody sees,” he said. “Those costume changes offstage, in the dark — it’s a real marathon. Three dressers set up-on me like an Indy pit crew. Maybe someday, someone will do a documentary on what goes on offstage.”
About what’s onstage, Mays has only good things to say. He enjoys playing all those D’Ysquiths — six men, and two women — each embody- ing one of the evils of the era. “Just as I’m about to get tired of a character, I get to play a new one,” he said. “It’s really wonderfully paced.”
The play, a co-production with Hartford Stage, is directed by Darko Tresnjak, former co-artistic director of the Globe, and currently artistic director at Hartford Stage. Based on a 1907 novel (“Israel Rank”) that later became a 1949 movie (“Kind Hearts & Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness as the multiple murderees), “A Gentleman’s Guide” was originally meant to be part of La Jolla Playhouse’s 2010- 2011 season. Copyright challenges got in the way. While things were settling, schedules were changing; so the show premiered — to effusive reviews — last October in Hartford, before making its way to The Globe, which welcomed it in, with the company intact.
“It’s a joyful thing we’ve created,” Mays said. “And we have great fun doing it. We all like each other a lot, and I think the audience will feel it. It’s a wonderfully wicked, rollicking romp, a real celebration of theater.”
If you go
■ What: ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’
■ When: Matinees, evening through April 14
■ Where: Shiley Stage, The Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
■ Tickets: $39-$99
■ Box Office: (619) 234-5623