Thursday, August 30, 2007

Three's a crowd

Aaron Tveit (D'Artagnan) and John Schiappa (Athos) buckle some swash in The Three Musketeers.

When the usher handed me my program at the North Shore Music Theatre last Sunday, I noticed she already had opened it to the plot summary. "Read this," she whispered. "You'll need it."

It was good advice. The NSMT's new musical version of the Dumas classic follows its source closely - "to a fault," in fact, opined the Boston Globe - but without the clarity required to keep focus through the story's shifts in perspective and tone. I was able to hang on to the impacted first half via vague memories of my junior-high encounter with the novel, but only just. The second act, where Peter Raby's book drops a major subplot (Milady de Winter's imprisonment), flows more smoothly - largely because the development of Milady's nefariousness, even in its curtailed state, supplies the show a serviceable spine. Indeed, the sang froid of Kate Baldwin in that key role, combined with the show's good-but-not-great score and a final, rousing duel, brought most of the audience to their feet at the finale. Still, despite the current New York chatter around the production (which has been in development for some time), I'm afraid that it's still not in shape for the Great White Way (although it offers an amusing afternoon in Beverly).

But how to fix The Three Musketeers? I beg to differ (once again!) with the Globe's Louise Kennedy, who advises, "Give the guys a bunch of nifty capes and weapons, stitch together the merest scrap of a plot -- sure, keep Dumas's diamonds and the cardinal and the queen if you want, but make sure they're just a backdrop for the real stars, the musketeers -- and let the swordplay begin." (Sigh. If even the plot of The Three Musketeers is a bit too trying for the Globe's attention span, how in the world are we to take the paper seriously?)

Sure, the original Dumas is almost overstuffed with story, but the issue here isn't plot, frankly - it's stagecraft. Book author Raby and lyricist Paul Leigh simply drop the ball when it's time to pass it from leading man D'Artagnan to the court's intrigues and back again. The smart, screwball Richard Lester film managed this trick easily enough - should it be so hard for a musical? You wouldn't think so - but Raby and Leigh never clearly lay out who Cardinal Richelieu is, or what's at stake for Queen Anne (she doesn't get a single real scene with her lover, the Duke of Buckingham), and the swordplay and music, while solid, aren't strong enough to distract us from the vague sense that we're not exactly sure what's going on, or why everyone's riding to and from Paris (on barrels, no less - perhaps the least evocative props I've seen at the North Shore in a long time).

What the show needs is to lay out the major players, devise a much bigger, more athletic skirmish for Act I (where are all those tumbling singers from Seven Brides?), and yes, give the Three Inseparables (at left) a bit more comic stagetime. There are other tweaks I'd suggest: Mick Bleyer's Rochefort could use a dash more menace, and D'Artagnan and Constance need more of a love song (and one that draws out their parallel with the Queen and her consort); and while designer Lez Brotherston's scenery and costumes are richly done and certainly of the period, together with Hugh Vanstone's moody lighting they're a bit grim. There's no reason for The Three Musketeers to trash Dumas - but carrying off his threading of personal intrigue through impersonal history will require a book as fleet, and lyrics as sharp and precise, as the swordplay of the Musketeers themselves.


  1. I think that while you are pointing out how ininformed and lazy today's critics are we must point out Ed Siegel's latest blunder on the summer theatre wrap up on WBUR ...

    OAKES: And you've also been to the North Shore Music Theatre for a musical version of "The Three Musketeers." This one hopes to go to Broadway. Think it'll get there?

    SIEGEL: George Stiles and Paul Leigh are famous for writing music for children's shows and this one doesn't develop a musical language much beyond that.

    WELL, As noted in the Playbill I received while attending The Three Musketeers, George Stiles and Paul Leigh have composed scores for musical stage adaptations of 'Tom Jones' and 'Moll Flanders'. Hardly the children's shows.

    Perhaps he was thinking of the writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who wrote 'Honk!,' 'Just So' and new material for 'Mary Poppins' among others. Getting this fact right might have required reading an additional sentence in the Playbill.

    It is more knowledgeable and accurate reporting from Ed. I see his standards have not dropped since being dumped from The Boston Globe. How soon before WBUR tires of his erroneous and dull reporting as well? Didn't we think those days were over for WBUR when Bill Marx got axed.

    Ed needs to learn that if he wants to be a bitch, it works better when he gets the facts straight.

    The online transcript has been corrected (I am sure due to my email to WBUR) but the on air piece is wrong and that is sad for the listeners.

  2. I've published your comment, anonymous, because I sense a certain challenge in it - still, your point is rather petty, don't you think? Siegel stumbled in conversation over the fact that George Stiles has been part of two different Broadway writing teams - and the mistake was corrected in the transcript. This hardly makes him "erroneous and dull," much less "a bitch" - particularly as he's in the right to doubt that "The Three Musketeers" is ready for Broadway. (I was more sympathetic to the score, but its lyrics are rather obvious and declamatory - it's not such a stretch to imagine that Anthony Drewe wrote them.)

    I certainly have had my long-standing disagreements with Siegel (full disclosure - he brought me to the Globe for my brief tenure there as a second stringer), but in many ways he transformed the critical scene in this town: he took local theater seriously, and reviewed many small-theatre productions positively (something his predecessor - a bitch if ever there was one - would never have condescended to do). Perhaps more importantly, Siegel's "voice" was evenhanded and unmalicious, and all by itself this elevated the tone of the whole scene. In general the Boston theatre scene is in his debt.