Most actors dream of the role of a lifetime. James Taylor Odom gets eight such roles – and gets to play them all in one night in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which has three performances April 17-19 at Century II as the season finale of the Broadway Theatre League.
In “Gentlemen’s Guide,” which won Tony Awards in 2014 for best musical, best book, best direction and best costume design, an heir to a family fortune tries to work his way up the line of succession by bumping off the eight members of a family ahead of him in line. Odom plays all eight.
A 27-year-old who grew up outside of Atlanta, Odom said he has kept an eye on “Gentleman’s Guide” since it was being workshopped in Hartford, Conn. When it opened on Broadway, he attended with his acting teacher.
“We were sitting in the balcony watching it, and just few minutes into the show, my acting teacher turned to me and said, ‘James, this is your show,’” Odom recalled. “And I thought, ‘Absolutely, this is totally what I want to be doing with my skillset and with my life.’”
Already accustomed to playing multiple characters in one show, Odom says it plays to his strengths of British humor and farce comedy.
“It’s a really enviable role for any actor, and for the things I love to do, it was a perfect, perfect match,” he said from a tour stop in Orone, Maine.
The show’s hero, named Monty Navarro, also has to juggle a mistress, his fiancée and the threat of getting caught in both a tryst and for murder. Monty and “the D’Ysquith Family,” all of whom are played by Odom, are considered the co-lead actors of the show, Odom said. Jefferson Mays, who played the D’Ysquiths on Broadway, won best actor awards from Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
The eight D’Ysquiths are on stage throughout most of the musical. That means seven quick costume changes for Odom, who has anywhere from 14 (not 15, 14) to 30 seconds to complete change outfits from one family member to another. One person in charge of costumes travels with the company, with a local assistant at each tour stop to help with the quick change.
“It’s such a show of skill backstage, with the costume change and almost a mental breakdown,” Odom said. “It becomes choreography, the same way we do dance numbers, with extreme fast and sharp moves. We just keep moving it.”
Since the tour opened in September, Odom has never missed a cue – but came close once when halfway through his change he realized he was becoming the wrong character.
“I didn’t really feel that I had relaxed into it until a month or so on the road,” he said. “I learn something every time I go out there and do this role. There’s so much going on and there’s so many different ways to play these characters and these bits. I learn something every day, and it’s exciting.”
Audiences agree, with one reviewer comparing his style to the late comedic actor Peter Sellers. Odom plays a range of characters, six male and two female, such as dithering old Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, philandering Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. and philanthropic Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith.
“They are all so delicious and eccentric,” Odom said. “But I do have a partiality to Henry the Beekeeper. He is just a blast to play, and how he dies is just delightful.”
Despite the barbaric thought of eight different deaths in one show, Odom says all of them are played for laughs. “Really the most challenging thing is endurance, for sure,” he said. “But each death is so unique and fun and I get to play up so much of it.”
Odom will be on the road with “Gentleman’s Guide” until mid-May, uncertain if another season awaits. He’ll try auditioning again, he said, hoping to find another role that’s at least half the fun of the wacky family of eight. “It’s going to be hard to find anything nearly as exciting and exhilarating and as much of a showcase for my skills as this,” he said. “I only have high hopes.”