The Three Musketeers
By Ken Ludwig
Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Through July 7
The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
No. Shilly. Shally.
In one of the funnier moments in a funny production of Dumas’ classic adventure story “The Three Musketeers,” the “inseparables,” as Athos, Porthos and Aramis are called, are told to hurry up that way — with the emphasis on “ing.”
“Shilly-shally” as a verb is all over the place. The Musketeers say it. The king says it. The cardinal says it.
Playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) obviously loves it. His 2006 adaptation was a commission by England’s Old Vic.
Ludwig loves his jokes, and Montclair’s Rick Sordelet, who directs, does too. The modern attitude in period costume feels a lot like “The Orville.” Like that show, “The Three Musketeers” wants it both ways: jokey but not parody. Heroism and courage and romance with the occasional eye roll. Most of the time, it works well.
Sordelet is a Broadway fight director and a longtime company member of Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, which opened the play this past Sunday. This is his directing debut there (though he’s directed elsewhere), and it’s a great choice: you know this director would make sure the play is full of sword fights and duels.
The familiar adventure is the story of young D’Artagnan and his quest to be a Musketeer, and the Musketeers’ battles with Cardinal Richelieu to protect the king and queen.
Dumas published the story, set in 1625, as a serialized novel in the newspaper Le Siècle so it has a lot of plot points. It was published in 1844.
It is the story of gallant young D’Artagnan (Cooper Jennings), a country bumpkin from Gascony who goes to Paris to join the Musketeers. His little sister Sabine (Courtney McGowan) tags along, due at the Convent School, though she soon dresses up as a boy and joins the sword fighting. (Sabine is an invention of Ludwig’s. McGowan took over the role last week when Andrea Morales broke her ankle, a point made by both Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte before the play began and by Sordelet when it ended.)
D’Artagnan manages to offend each Musketeer on his first day, and schedules three duels; he also rescues a damsel in distress—Constance Bonacieux (Billie Wyatt), the queen’s lady—from the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Bruce Cromer) and his henchmen, Rochefort (Jeffrey M. Bender) and Ravanche (Patrick Toon).
In a very French sort of plot, the Musketeers must protect the Queen (Fiona Robberson) from her own folly: she’s been having a love affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Clark Scott Carmichael), and must retrieve the diamonds she gave him in time for a ball.
Milady DeWinter (Anastasia Le Gendre) works for the Cardinal and steals two diamonds. We also learn that she was once the wife of Athos, who tried to kill her when he discovered she was a former convict.
The company are terrific, particularly Montclair’s Clark Scott Carmichael in the duel role of an innkeeper and a very foppish Buckingham (he literally skips). Robberson’s Queen Anne shows heart in the thankless role of a romantic adulteress, and Michael Stewart Allen’s King Louis ably mimics a lovable toddler. As Richelieu, Cromer has an Alan Alda-like amiability, but that undercuts a stronger sense of menace, particularly in a running bit where he chokes Rochefort but does no damage and it feels right out of a cartoon.
Le Gendre’s Milady, however, is weak: her diction makes her hard to understand, and implausible when she’s in disguise, though she’s affecting in a scene with her ex-husband, Athos (John Keabler). Athos discarded her and tried to kill her when he discovered she had the fleur-de-lis brand of a convict. It’s an unsavory story, and Keabler does his best to make us feel sorry for Athos’ broodiness, but it doesn’t quite work.
McGowan’s Sabine is pert and perfect.
The Musketeers all distinguish themselves. Paul Molnar’s Porthos reveals comic vanity about dress; Alexander Sovronsky’s Aramis, musician and lover and someday priest, shows appeal and gallantry (we can understand why Sabine crushes on him).
Sovronsky also designed the gorgeous music and sound design: every sword fight has a score, and emotional scenes have their own theme. There was even a cheery tavern song.
And then there are those fights, created by Christian Kelly-Sordelet, the director’s son.
Act One flies by, with its bumbling, handsome D’Artagnan (Jennings resembles a young Mark Hamill), and gallant sword fights. Act Two, however, often feels slow. And the jokiness wears thin. For example, having the Musketeers say “One for All, All for One” in an occasionally “whatever” tone, saving the big one for the end, is just not worth it. The pace for a swashbuckling romp needs to fly, but sometimes we’re standing still, if not actually shilly-shallying. Sordelet has hit the jokes too hard and sacrificed the thrills we need to feel in a good costume swashbuckle. Even the fact that there is time to question whether it’s worth saving Queen Anne is a mistake.
Exhilarating, no — but entertaining, yes.
Overall, “The Three Musketeers” does not dazzle, but it does distract, and that, in itself, delights.