Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Lisa O'Hare as Sibella Hallward and Bryce Pinkham as Monty Navarro in a "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York. (Joan Marcus / October 20, 2013)

Darko Tresnjak and Joey Parnes — the Broadway newbie and the veteran producer — sit in the orchestra section of the Walter Kerr Theatre looking remarkably serene. After all, it was the last day to put in any finishing touches before critics start arriving to see the musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." The show, which premiered last fall at Hartford Stage where Tresnjak is artistic director, opens officially in New York City on Sunday, Nov. 17.

It's Hartford Stage's first Broadway transfer since the play "Enchanted April" in 2003 and musical "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm" in 1999 —- and the first musical from any Connecticut theater since Goodspeed's "By Jeeves" in 2001.

"Gentleman's Guide" is a high-stakes $7.5 million production that, if successful, could generate big bucks for Hartford Stage, put a brighter national spotlight on the theater and its new artistic director and empower the theater to do more new musical work, something it has shied away from because of the costs.

The musical is based on the 1907 book by Roy Horniman, "Israel Rank," which also served as the basis for the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets." The black comedy starred Alec Guinness playing multiple roles as not-so-dearly departing members of an aristocratic British family, the victims of a slighted, socially-ambitious and very charming relative who is in line to inherit the family's Downton Abbey-sized fortune.

"My emotions are pretty erradic," says Tresnjak, who at the moment looks the picture of Slavic serenity. "There are times when I'm stressed and then a switch flips and I find myself calmer than I've ever been." It's been an extraordinary autumn for Tresnjak, 48, who directed two repertory shows for Hartford Stage ("Macbeth" and "La Dispute"), and oversaw the theater's 50th anniversary celebrations all the while prepping and rehearsing the Broadway production.

Hit In Hartford

After its critical and box office success in Hartford last fall, "Gentleman's Guide'' played in March and April at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the co-producer of the two regional theater runs.

"It was our shared hope it would come to Broadway," says Parnes, a veteran with such producing and managing credits as "Betrayal," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "Copenhagen" and the revival of "Hair."

Parnes became involved with the Hartford production as "a friend of the court. I made it possible for the production to be enhanced." Outside funds of $70,000 were brought in to supplement the show's budget.

"I thought the show was clever and smart and I hadn't heard a score with lyrics [by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman] like that in years. And I thought the way that Darko put it together and flowed made it very engaging in a very old fashioned-yet-edgy way. Audiences were loving it and audiences are never wrong."

Parnes' hope was also buttressed by a rave from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood who in his review wrote that the show "ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I've seen in years…Here is a new musical to leave you giddy and sated...I was pretty much smiling from ear to ear throughout the musical."

"That review was a game-changer without a doubt," says Parnes. "It made people take notice and having that support that early altered the landscape of planning and made it that much more likely we were going to make it to Broadway."

The show gained another friend with Jordan Roth, president of the Jujamcyn Theaters, who had seen the show in Hartford and reached out to Parnes to offer him a theater for the Broadway production.

Several months after the equally successful San Diego run ended, a Broadway deal was made and the sought-after Walter Kerr Theatre secured. "The show and the theater look made for each other as if the same person designed the theater and our show," says Parnes. The musical's stage design is by Alexander Dodge, who won a Connecticut Critics Circle Award. Honors also went to the show, director and leading actor, Ken Barnett.) Among the list of producers and investors in the show are 50 Church Street Productions, headed by Hartford Stage board member Rick Costello. Also among producing credits is Greg Nobile, now interim managing director of Branford's Legacy Theatre, formerly the Stony Creek Puppet House.

But without big-name stars, a fancy set with bells and whistles and lots of tech and a well-known creative team, it wasn't a slam dunk either for investors who might say love it but might question whether it could become a commercial success on Broadway. "This is a creative team that isn't as well known as they are likely to be after we open," says Parnes.

But eventually the last investors were found and the announcement to Broadway was made this summer.

Changes Ahead

"We knew all the elements of the show were terrific," says Parnes, "but each one needed to be looked at with a New York perspective and a Broadway budget, [in order to make additions] that Darko was not capable of doing with a regional theater budget.'' r

For Broadway the physical production was given more pop with the enchanting "toy theater" set sliding closer to the audience for certain scenes. Projections were more elaborate and gorgeous costumes by Linda Cho were added. Two actors were added to the cast and Hartford's six musicians were doubled to 12 playing Jonathan Tunick's now more fuller orchestrations.

But along the way much of the cast from the Hartford/San Diego productions were cut, including Ken Barnett, who played the delightfully murderous Monty Navarro. Other than the show's tour de force star — Jefferson Mays, the Tony Award-winning actor ("I Am My Own Wife") who grew up in Clinton and who plays all the despicable members of the ill-fated D'Ysquith clan — only Lisa O'Hare and Price Waldman remain from the eight-member Hartford cast.