Bryce Pinkham, left, and Jefferson Mays during a performance of...

Bryce Pinkham, left, and Jefferson Mays during a performance of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," at the Walter Kerr Theatre in Manhattan. Credit: AP

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is, at heart, a clever and jolly 90-minute frolic about a mouse of a disinherited Brit who kills his way up the noble Edwardian family tree until he becomes lord of the manor.

Alas, this musical-comedy trifle runs a very leisurely 2-1 / 2 hours, not 90 minutes. This fact should not dissuade patient theatergoers who want to relish Jefferson Mays in one of those performances that people will be talking about all season.

Make that eight of those performances. Mays, who famously and seriously portrayed 40 people in the Pulitzer-winning "I Am My Own Wife," here does quick-change impersonations of all the upper-crust characters -- also caricatures -- on the young man's hit list. Others may have their favorites, but I am partial to the reverend with the beaver teeth who makes a satisfying splat on the way down from the tower.

The show is loosely inspired by the 1949 dark comedy, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," a film treasured for the killer transformations of Alec Guinness.

Director Darko Tresnjak's production, a transfer from his Hartford Stage and from San Diego's Old Globe, has the genuine charm of a miniature toy theater. Once beyond the long, arch exposition, composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak and author-lyricist Robert L. Freedman deliver saucy impudence of bright operetta pastiche.

Alexander Dodge's inventively childlike set involves a proscenium within the theater's own proscenium, with a satin poof curtain that closes and opens to reveal the thin-ice peaks, the beekeeper's garden and other darling cartoon scenes of the crimes.

We first meet Monty Navarro, played by Bryce Pinkham, the social-climbing murderer, as an earl writing his memoir before his execution. Pinkham's Monty seems awfully dull in early flashbacks, but gets more dashing as the character gets sure of himself. Lisa O'Hare, a big talent, brings fascinating confidence and comic timing as Monty's married lover, while Lauren Worsham matches her aplomb as his aristocratic fiancee.

The chorus has just the right macabre panache, if not quite the vocal range for the demands of the score -- which has won Lutvak and Freedman both the Fred Ebb and the Kleban musical awards. Linda Cho's period costumes appreciate style as well as humor. Missing, alas, is a courageous editor.

WHAT "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"

WHERE Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.

INFO $99-$152; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Clever but indulgently long mystery-spoof.

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