You need look no further than the printed program for Martin Guerre to see why the show fails so miserably. There you'll find an article on the creative odyssey of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, detailing how the authors have worked and reworked the show since its premiere in 1996 and tried to make it into something it just isn't. (Hell, the actors can't even agree on how to say the first name of the title character! Is it "Martan?" "Martine?" "Martin?")
The London production of a revised Martin Guerre apparently received critical acclaim, yet this version has a further rewritten libretto, new songs, new direction, new choreography, new design elements--and a new director, Conall Morrison, who is helming his first musical. But that's the least of the production's problems. The main issue is the plot, which is neither believable nor compelling. What should be an intimate, moving love story becomes a debacle entrenched in melodramatic holy-war savagery and jealousy.
The first few minutes of the show are enough to incite laughter. In 1564, ragtag soldiers come charging out onto the stage, waving a French flag (does that remind you of Les Miz?). Before you know it, they've hauled out the big guns. Literally. A huge cannon is dragged to center stage and shoots right over the audience, leaving a puff of smoke to waft away lightly. This opening is so overdone, it's numbing; you can't imagine what will happen next.
Two soldiers--Martin (Hugh Panaro) and Arnaud (Stephen Buntrock)--emerge from the battle to sing a sappy piece called "Without You as a Friend." These two are such good buddies that, even after seven years of fighting together, Arnaud has no idea that Martin is married. Arnaud convinces Martin to return to his village and resume the marriage he was forced into at age 14 (!!) and never consummated. But, with very bad timing, Martin is immediately wounded in battle; before he dies, he asks Arnaud to convey his apologies to his wife for his childish actions.
Arnaud finds Martin's village, where he is mistaken for Martin. Once vilified for his refusal to conform and father a child, Arnaud/Martin is now accepted by his neighbors because they think his departure caused an ensuing drought. And--miracle of miracles--as soon as "Martin" returns, the rains come. He is a hero! The villagers resume their old ways after Arnaud/Martin is "reunited" with Martin's wife, Bertrand (Erin Dilly). She knows he is not Martin, and so does Guillaume (José Llana), the jealous boy who has been trying to marry Bertrand since they were young.
It's only a matter of time before all is found out. But Bertrand and Arnaud fall in love, and truly wish to live a good life. Just when you start to think they may pull it off, in walks Martin, who isn't dead after all. He is a little upset, though--and he manages to upset everyone else.
In other versions of this story, Bertrand is not sure that Arnaud is not Martin, which adds a little intrigue. Here, all doubt is gone, and the show becomes a tortured tale of how the main characters deal with the "village of fools"--so dubbed by the sensible judge (D.C. Anderson) who ends up trying Arnaud for fraud. It's actually sort of tragic that the one character you feel for is the village idiot, played to perfection by Michael Arnold. (What Arnold does with a scarecrow is truly amazing. Give him a one-man show, please!)
The yawn factor is very high in Martin Guerre, which clocks in at 2:45. For the most part, the show is about the sets, yet John Napier's efforts in this area are largely drab. Though decorative elements drop from the flies to liven things up, the play never catches fire--just the scenery. (Yes, they set the backdrop ablaze to get your attention; but it's too little, too late.) Howard Harrison's lighting suits the dreary look of the production. Andreane Neofitou needs to work on the cast's wigs, but her costuming is on the mark.
Schönberg's music continuously teases you with snatches of melodies from the wonderful Les Miz--"On My Own," "Who Am I?," "I Dreamed a Dream"--but none of these songs ever really ignite, either.