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Tony-winning 'Gentleman's Guide' comes to Shea's

When the script for "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" first slid across Michael Murphy's desk at San Diego's Old Globe Theater in 2012 , his reaction was swift and irrepressible.

"I was laughing out loud," said Murphy, now three months into his tenure as the president and CEO of Shea's Performing Arts Center. A touring production of the surprise hit, which mixes comedy and murder in a Victorian setting that theatergoers have found irresistible, opens Feb. 16 in Shea's.

Smitten though he may have been at his initial reading, Broadway was never in his sights for this oddball co-production between the Old Globe and Hartford Stage, where it debuted to ecstatic reviews in 2013. Nor were the four Tony Awards it would win in 2014. Nor, certainly, was the notion that, five years later, the Broadway success story he helped shepherd into existence would swing back into his life in the form of a national tour.

"To see that it won the Tony, to be on the stage when it received the Tony, and then to be here in Buffalo, my hometown, and being able to experience it again with my family, it's great," Murphy said. "I'm really thrilled and proud."

The show was a long-held passion project of Darko Tresnjak, who worked with Murphy for eight years as the Globe's associate artistic director. During Tresnjak's tenure in San Diego, the creative team -- including composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak and co-lyricist and book writer Robert L. Freedman -- approached him with a completed script and score based on the show’s source material. Tresnjak and the creative team then honed this into a tightly constructed piece of musical theater.

And while Murphy might not have been thinking about Broadway, it was at the top on Tresnjak's mind.

"If it's a new musical, I find that everybody has their mind on Broadway," said Tresnjak, who is now the artistic director of Hartford Stage. "It takes years just to write them, to develop them, and then you have to do workshops for funders hoping they're going to come along. So it's years and years of work in the gestation period alone."

Tresnjak, best known for his productions of Shakespeare, Shaw and other masters, said there were clear echoes between "Gentleman's Guide" and the humor of Oscar Wilde or the era mannerisms you might see in a Shaw play.

The visual mood of the production -- one of Tresnjak's strong suits -- was inspired in part by Victorian toy theaters, the elaborate souvenirs often sold at theaters of the era and used by children and theater enthusiasts to perform miniature versions of their favorite plays.

"I also thought about the Advent calendars, like Christmas Advent calendars, where you open those little doors every day," Tresnjak said. "I said this should be delightful, like an Advent calendar. But bloody."

Many shows, regardless of their quality or the cleverness of their conception, do not survive the out-of-town tryout process let alone the transfer to Broadway. This, Tresnjak implied, is because meddling producers attracted by the prospect of a payday often pressure creative teams to dumb down the product before opens to the tourist crowds of Great White Way.

Because producers were carefully vetted, no such fate afflicted this production, he said. He and his collaborators chose Joey Parnes Productions because they "really seemed to understand the appeal of the material."

"Between an out-of-town [production], and taking it to New York, many, many bad things can happen if you're not careful about the choice of the producer," Tresnjak said. "Every step of the way, the show was thoughtfully and lovingly nurtured."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

THEATER PREVIEW
What: "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"
Where: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
When: Feb. 16 to 22
Tickets: $30 to $65
Info: 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.

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