One actor. Eight characters.
To some, it's the stuff of nightmares. For James Taylor Odom, it's a dream come true. He'll portray eight men and women, all being killed one by one, in the Tony Award-winning musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." The show will make a tour stop at Pikes Peak Center on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As Odom watched the original Broadway version from 2013, he recalled, an acting mentor turned to him and said, "James, this is your show."
"It suits my strengths, as well as I have loved anything British and or murder mystery macabre since I was 5," Odom said from home in Atlanta. "I grew up loving watching PBS' 'Masterpiece Mystery' or Agatha Christie. I wanted to be part of that Edwardian world as a kid."
In London in 1907, poor clerk Monty Navarro is informed after his mother dies that he's ninth in line to inherit an earldom controlled by the D'Ysquith family. Navarro's claim of being a relative is dismissed, and he begins to cheerfully plot the demise of the eight D'Ysquith family members in line ahead of him. One actor always plays the eight D'Ysquiths.
"Despite the high body count, this delightful show will lift the hearts of all those who've been pining for what sometimes seems a lost art form: musicals that match streams of memorable melody with fizzily witty turns of phrase. Bloodlust hasn't been sung so sweetly, or provided so much theatrical fun, since Sweeney Todd first wielded his razor with gusto many a long year ago," wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherwood four years ago.
Odom is no stranger to taking on multiple roles in one show. Four years ago, he played 13 characters in an off-Broadway show, transitioning from one to the other in seconds while onstage. He's also written a couple of one-person shows with numerous characters.
"It allows the actor to explore and not be restricted as to how a character should be played, as opposed to playing one character," he said. "When you're playing multiple characters you have to have specific defined movements and voice inflections. That's a blast for an actor to explore."
The first step in Odom's process? Reading the script and learning everything he can about each character and what other characters in the play say about them. Then he finds a piece of costuming that resembles the character in some way and plants himself in front of a mirror. He discovers the way the character walks and talks and how they'll be different from the others. Most challenging, though, is deciphering the character's singing voice.
"I recorded myself," he said. "It's hard to continue character work through singing. I had to focus on speaking with the voice and slowly start adding singing to that, so singing and acting are fluid."
Why only one actor for so many roles? The musical is based on Roy Horniman's 1907 novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal" about a serial killer. That book also inspired the 1949 British film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which Alec Guinness played multiple characters. The film's copyright holders have sued, claiming the musical borrows too much from the film.
"That lawsuit couldn't withstand because one actor playing multiple roles is an old theatrical trick," Odom said. "If one actor wasn't playing all characters, it would be a very different show. The writer recognized the comedy of having one actor getting killed off and the promise of him returning within 15 seconds. The audience is rooting for every murder as opposed to wondering, 'Why are we watching this horrible serial killer?'"