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Chicago by John Olson

The Three Musketeers
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The Three Musketeers
Aaron Ramey, Juan Chioran, and Porthos (Steven Jeffrey Ross, Kevin Massey (front)
According to the program notes, The Three Musketeers' author Alexandre Dumas considered himself not a thinker like Hugo or a dreamer like Lamartine, but a "populariser." This new musical version of Dumas' 1843 novel, with music by George Stiles (Mary Poppins, Honk!), lyrics by Paul Leigh and book by Peter Raby, proves the durability of a good story, whether great or merely "popular" art. They've condensed the sprawling novel, originally a newspaper serial, into a tight narrative that gallops at a sprightly pace. Though some of the exposition is rattled off rather quickly in brief speeches, the adapters have managed to fit a concise and coherent story into some two and a half hours.

Much of the considerable fun that's delivered in the show is due to the production values. The sumptuous costumes by Mariann Verheyen include a profusion of military uniforms, gowns, peasant garb and religious vestments of 17th century France. The inventive lighting design by Donald Holder (Movin' Out, The Lion King) includes a first act number called "Paris by Night," with an assemblage of flickering street lamps creating a mysterious City of Lights that's especially impressive. The sets make good use of the Chicago Shakespeare's thrust stage, with two towers and a connecting bridge serving multiple functions, and supplemented by a variety of backdrops. Tom Burch is credited with Associate Scenic Design, but curiously, no set designer is listed.

A lighthearted tone is set by Director David H. Bell and songwriters Stiles and Leigh, much in the spirit of the 1973 non-musical film version directed by Richard Lester mildly slapstick, but not campy, and quite sincere in showing the affection between D'Artagnan and Constance as well as Athos' remorse over his treatment of his late wife. Bell manages his cast of 24 quite effectively and takes full advantage of the Shakespeare's playing space, with performers chaotically entering and exiting from the aisles as well as the wings.

Though the title characters are men, it's the women in this cast who really shine, beginning with Blythe Wilson as the duplicitous Milady. She convinces us of her supposed sincerity as she's duping D'Artagnan and Athos, reveals her menace without going over the top and even at the end manages to evoke some empathy. As Constance, Abby Mueller is endearing and entirely natural, fully communicating the conflict between her commitment to loyalty to her husband and her growing love for D'Artagnan as well as her strength in serving her mistress, Queen Anne (Johanna McKenzie Miller) at the risk of her own safety.

With some exceptions, the men are not as successful in creating vivid characters. Of the Musketeers, only the portly Porthos, played by Steven Jeffrey Ross, is distinctive. He has the benefit of having the funnier lines and a body image to distinguish himself, and he uses them to good advantage in creating a comic yet formidable musketeer. The taller and more traditionally handsome Juan Chioran, and Aaron Ramey as Athos and Aramis, seem a bit interchangeable until act two when Athos gets a solo and a subplot to draw him into the spotlight. The two need to try some different acting choices and get some more help from the script to distinguish them from each other and from the many soldiers and fighters in the story who all have a similar stoic demeanor and wear the same sorts of dark clothing, long hair and short beards. The actors in the character roles, like the King Louis (Terry Hamilton), Bonacieux (Greg Vinkler), and Planchet (Brian Sills), do better, as the script gives them more to work with and their costumes are designed to give them more idiosyncratic appearances.

Kevin Massey nails the youth and idealism of D'Artagnan, but lacks any unexpected traits to make him particularly interesting. His slight and boyish frame establishes his character as a young man, but helps less at giving him the athletic appearance that would make him seem capable of D'Artagnan's skill in battle.

Stiles and Leigh's songs serve the story well, with the anthems more successful than the ballads. "Count Me In," the song in which D'Artagnan joins the Musketeers, captures the show's central theme of devotion to duty, and is a more jovial cousin to The Scarlet Pimpernel's "Into the Fire." "The Life of a Musketeer" is a jaunty little march that incorporates the famous watch cry "All for one and one for all." These are nice, accessible melodies with memorable hooks the ballads lack. The score is lushly orchestrated (by David Shrubsole), but the live backstage orchestra, sadly, sounds canned through the sound system employed. It's all sung beautifully, though, thanks to the personal supervision of Stiles and music director Dale Rieling. Leigh's sometimes copious lyrics could sometimes use a little better articulation from the ensemble, though.

All in all it's a fun, family-friendly ride that could become quite popular. Already a visual feast in this production thanks to Bell's staging, Ms. Verheyen's costumes and lots of sword fighting choreographed by Kevin Asselin, the space and resources of a large proscenium staging could bring even more theatrical magic to bear. The basic structure is solid enough to make the piece suitable for Broadway. If I were a producer, I might push Stiles to try to outdo himself a bit with some new songs and maybe bring in a script doctor to punch up the humor and embellish the characters in Raby's libretto. That and hiring a few stars to flesh out key characters could make this quite worthy for Broadway. It's already leagues ahead of the last big historical musical to try its wings in Chicago.

The Three Musketeers runs through Sunday, February 18 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier. For performance dates and times and tickets, visit www.chicagoshakes.com or call the box office at 312-595-5600.


Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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