There have been numerous adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling novel, The Three Musketeers, all over the world, among them two previous efforts in Chicago within recent memory. The current musical adaptation of The Three Musketeers at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has been worked and reworked for a decade in the United Kingdom, Canada, and throughout the United States. While the result of all this tinkering is a very good show; it is unfortunately not a wonderful one.
Fortunately, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has bestowed upon this revision a lavish production, with a cast of 24 including Juan Chioran (Athos), Kevin Massey (D’Artagnan), Aaron Ramey (Aramis), Steven Jeffrey Ross (Porthos), and Greg Vinkler (Bonacieux). While it has all the right elements for a successful musical, somehow they never reach the critical mass to raise the show to the needed next level.
One problem is that Act I seems rather cumbersome, in large part because there are so many characters to introduce and so much exposition to provide. Yes, there’s plenty of action (among them at least two whiz-bang swordfights staged by Kevin Asselin) and lots of information provided over 90 minutes, but nothing engages viewers emotionally.
The difficulty is not everything that must be crammed into the book — Peter Raby has done as good a job of condensation as one can ask — but the daunting job that the music (by Mary Poppins co-scribe George Stiles) and lyrics (by Paul Leigh) must do. With so much information packed into the dialogue and basic scene structure, virtually all emotional impact and involvement must depend on the score.
Among the eleven numbers of Act I are several with pretty enough melodies; there are also several robust tunes with the Musketeers singing in close harmony (“Count Me In”), manly and rousing stuff to which the audience responds. But the good tunes are matched by an equal number of pedestrian strains. “Doing Very Well Without You,” a love song for Constance (Abby Mueller) and D’Artagnan could be sung by any two people attracted to each other. By contrast, their Act II love song, “Who Could Have Dreamed?” is more specific to them and is far more effective. Intelligent and clever as most of Leigh’s lyrics are, too many Act I songs fail to tell a story each in its own right.
Overall, Act II is more solid and compelling, complete with a touching ending. Indeed, it offers several advantages, such as a cynical and witty opening number (“A Good Old-Fashioned War”) and a tighter plot focus. The authors have excised the villainous Cardinal Richelieu almost completely from the story and reduced the role of his henchman, Rochefort.
The result is that all the show’s villainy is contained within the character of Milady deWinter (a dazzling Blythe Wilson). When Athos reveals to D’Artagnan his past association with her (“Take a Little Wine”), the scene not only provides an island of dramatic effectiveness and depth of character, but also unites the threads of the story so the rest of the act falls into place dramatically and musically.
Nevertheless, the show’s creators also need to establish the two principal women more strongly in Act I. We need to know why Milady is an enemy of the Queen, which is the story’s jumping-off point, and there must be a song for Constance both establishing her character and giving D’Artagnan a reason to love her beyond her beauty.
Director/choreographer David H. Bell, at the top of his game, provides blocking and dances full of athleticism. He also understands the fine line between fast-paced and breathless. Orchestrator David Shrubsole, writing for an 11-piece ensemble, gives Stiles’ music a fine burnish, with particularly tasteful horn and woodwind details. Mariann Verheyen’s costumes are dazzling and sexy, with lots of leather, knee-high boots, broad hats, and fetching gowns. But all this craft has not yet transformed The Three Musketeers into the surefire success that it could still turn out to be.