In 2013 and 2015, the Tony Award for best musical went to a show that focused, to varying degrees, on important issues of political and social awareness — respectively, the Broadway adaptation of the film “Kinky Boots” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut “Hamilton.” Sandwiched between those productions, though, was 2014’s winner, a show that set out to entertain audiences in the style of classic wacky musical theater.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” gained great praise during its Broadway run for its memorable melodies, witty dialogue and, most especially, actor Jefferson Mays’ portrayal of multiple roles (he was nominated for the Tony but lost to Neil Patrick Harris in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). The play follows the story of Monty Navarro, a pauper who learns that he is actually a distant member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family. He is ninth in line to inherit the family’s fortune, so naturally he sets about murdering the other eight, each played by the same actor.
When “A Gentleman’s Guide” comes to Bass Concert Hall courtesy of Broadway in Austin on its second national tour, audiences will be treated to a newcomer to the national touring scene portraying the D’Ysquith family — James Taylor Odom.
“It’s been amazing,” Odom says of the tour. “Not only to just be having that first experience, but to have a role like this as a first experience is truly humbling and educational in so many different ways. I’m learning things along the way, like how to protect myself for extensive runs of eight shows a week while traveling to 30 states and 50 cities. It’s pretty enlightening in terms of how I have to take care of my body.”
One part of his physicality is particularly important to Odom’s portrayal of the D’Ysquiths — his voice. “The role that I do is very vocally demanding, not necessarily singingwise, but just in terms of all the different characters that I play and what I have to do with how I change inflection and that sort of thing.”
However, the challenge of portraying eight different members of the same family extends beyond just creating unique voices for each. He also needs to create unique styles of movement and expression for every family member. As he explains, though, “The costumes help with that tremendously. We were lucky enough to have my costumes in the rehearsal room pretty much Day One, which is unheard of but important for this role. So standing in front of a mirror, diving into these costumes, they informed how my body moved, how it lived in the space, and that’s truly something that helps every night. Once I go into the costume, I know who I am.”
Getting into that costume is a unique challenge in and of itself, with a number of rapid costume changes that rely on a great deal of trust between the actor and the off-stage wardrobe team. “Sometimes I have 14 seconds to make that quick-change. When that happens, I’m running off-stage and there’s about four people who are standing at my wardrobe station who are ripping clothes off of me — hats, wigs, props, makeup — and I’m diving into a whole new set of those things. We have to clearly rehearse and work through those changes so it becomes almost choreography.”
In a national tour, there’s another added element to these quick-changes: “There’s always a variable, because every city we go into we’re hiring a local wardrobe dresser as well. So we have to rehearse a couple of those quick-changes and then pray and hope that everything’s going to go OK.”
Fortunately, Odom is well prepared for the craziness, both off the stage and on, that comes with the role. He has written and starred in several one-man shows that have required him to take on a multitude of characters with split-second shifts between.
Odom’s suitability for the role is something that those close to the actor recognized during the initial run of “A Gentleman’s Guide.” “I actually saw the production before it won the Tony on Broadway,” Odom says. “I was sitting in the balcony, and as soon as the play began, my acting mentor leaned over to me and said, ‘James, this is your show.’”
Now, Odom has the chance to truly make the show his own, taking these characters that Mays shaped on Broadway and molding them into his own image. “That’s the great thing about the D’Ysquith family,” he says. “The writing is so brilliant and requires so much abandon that it allows any actor to really sink their teeth into the role and bring their personality to the table.”
As for the future, Odom would love to appear in several plays and roles that he holds close to his heart, including “Noises Off,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the new stage adaptation of the movie “Clue.” The common link between these three plays? Comedy.
“I don’t mind doing musicals and comedies and dramas and Shakespeare,” Odom says. “But usually I like doing things that I really love, and a lot of times I just love making people laugh.”
He says he hopes audiences will get a great deal of pleasure out of this joyful, if macabre, show, and that it will serve as a much-needed bit of entertaining escapism. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” Odom expects, will certainly provide audiences with that healthy dose of laughter:
“If you’re looking for an escape from the terrible harsh realities of everything going on every day in the news or at home or at work, you can come to ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ and have an amazing time laughing.”
‘A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER’
When: 8 p.m. March 20-24, 2 p.m. March 24, 1 and 7 p.m. March 25
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive