These Paper Bullets!
Is there anything that says Britain better than the Beatles? Only the plays of William Shakespeare come to mind. Rolin Jones liberally merges England's two blockbuster cultural exports in These Paper Bullets!, now making its New York debut at Atlantic Theater Company after earlier runs at Yale Repertory Theatre and L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse. Set in 1964 London, this imaginative retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing features rocking original songs by Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (American Idiot). It's a heady mixture of individually powerful elements (Shakespeare, the Beatles, Armstrong) that occasionally tastes like chocolate cake washed down with Riesling — it's just too much of a sugar rush. When it gets the balance right, however, These Paper Bullets! is genuinely delightful and very funny.
The tale begins with London abuzz about the triumphant return of rock band the Quartos: Ben (Justin Kirk), Claude (Bryan Fenkart), Balth (Lucas Papaelias), and Pedro (James Barry). Having just conquered America with their debut tour, the fab four are now holed up in the Soho hotel owned by Leo Messina (Stephen DeRosa). Claude gets one look at Messina's daughter, Higgy (Ariana Venturi), and the two are instantly smitten with each other. Fashion designer Bea (Nicole Parker) is less taken with Ben (Justin Kirk), a committed bachelor who vows never to take a Yoko. As the hotel prepares for the wedding of Claude and Higgy, the band's former drummer, Don Best (Adam O'Byrne), conspires to scuttle the marriage and break up the band by spreading rumors about Higgy's virtue. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard detective Doug Berry (Greg Stuhr) investigates the Quartos' role in the decay of the empire.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of hedonistic parties in swinging London. At one of these, the guests pass around a mountain of cocaine on a silver platter. Watching this play sometimes feels like being cornered by a cokehead at a party: It's loud, manic, and thinks it's a lot cleverer than it actually is. With their Soho sobriquets ("Ben" for Benedick, Higgy for Hero) and tendency to quote Beatles' lyrics, these cartoonish mods are often too cute for their own good. Still, the play grows on you once you accept cheesiness as endemic to the form: It's not like Shakespeare's comedies are any less over-the-top or clownish. What sell them are commensurately committed performances.
This show has plenty of those. In addition to being superb musicians, the four guys in the band are quite convincing in their roles: Fenkart makes out with the mic in a manner eerily reminiscent of Paul McCartney, while Kirk captures the air of languid mischief that surrounded John Lennon. Parker gives a knockout physical performance as Bea, at one point barreling over a sofa while clutching a dress model. Liz Wisan and Christopher Geary have a hilariously confrontational relationship as a BBC reporter and Queen Elizabeth, respectively. Keira Naughton slays us as bridesmaid Ulcie: Channeling Pasty Stone from Absolutely Fabulous, she proposes a revenge scheme more harebrained than anything Lucy and Ethel ever cooked up. From a dramatic perspective, justifying Shakespeare's wildest contrivances with inebriation really works.
Amid all this lunacy, director Jackson Gay quite literally keeps the show spinning, staging everything on a turntable that resembles a giant vinyl record. Michael Yeargan fills up this space with appropriately garish furniture, including several paisley lampshades. A platform rotates in for the band scenes. Gay uses the turntable to maximum effect, deftly moving the stage during Bea and Ben's eavesdropping scenes to offer a cinematic perspective rarely achieved onstage. Nicholas Hussong's slightly psychedelic projections give us an unnaturally vibrant view of the London skyline: It's like an acid trip through the Chimneysweep scene from Mary Poppins.
Not to be outdone, costume designer Jessica Ford outfits everyone in loud patterns and unforgettable accessories. Messina's origami pocket squares are works of art. Sporting a thick broom of a mustache and a bright orange suit, Don Best's henchman Boris (a ruddy and raring-to-go Andrew Musselman) comes off like a pervy Captain Kangaroo. Everyone is wearing the fanciest footwear, giving us a sense of Carnaby Street opulence.
Most impressive are Armstrong's songs, which have the near-impossible task of contending with our memories of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Numbers like "Give It All to You" and "Love Won't Wait" instantly conjure the Brit rock of the era without being overly derivative. The first-pumping first act finale, "My Bloody Heart," features a hard edge that evokes the earliest stirrings of punk rock (pitch-perfect orchestrations by Tom Kitt), mythologizing the evolution of music through Claude's heartbreak. Armstrong is not only endlessly inventive with his melodies, but uses them to serve the story of this play with music. His skills have only advanced since American Idiot, and he ought to write another full-scale musical.
Until he does, you can enjoy his work in These Paper Bullets! The play may be trying way too hard to please, but that doesn't ruin the charming and timeless comedy at its core.