In the opening moments of Martin Guerre, the newly retooled musical from the creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, an onstage cannon shoots a perfect smoke ring toward the balcony. A lovely effect, but it's the last time that anything in this show is purposefully aimed over the heads of the audience.
Fifth Avenue till February 12
Musical theater is often an ambulance-chaser of popular culture, and Martin Guerre is certainly no exception. Based upon the 1982 French film La Retour de Martin Guerre, this story has received dozens of fictional and dramatic treatments, including 1993's Sommersby, a Richard Gere/Jodie Foster vehicle set just after the American Civil War. All versions were based upon a strange bit of history, recorded in 1560 in Toulouse: A young woman, the beautiful Bertrande (Erin Dully), brought suit against her husband Martin Guerre (Stephen R. Buntrock). She accused the man she'd been living with for the past three years since his return from the wars of not being her husband at all, but an imposter. The court was almost ready to set the man free when her real husband (Hugh Panaro), who'd been soldiering in foreign lands, walked in, dooming his doppelganger to execution.
It's a tasty historical conundrum that raises some fascinating questions about identity, along with such practical details of how a man could pull off such an imposture and whether or not his "wife" was complicit. But what the producers want to say about human emotion or passion with this bizarre love triangle is never clear from this show, despite the addition of a villainous "fourth wheel," Guillaume (Jose Llana), who thinks he's a better man for Bertrande than any Martin who might show up.
There's been a lot of praise for the industrious way in which the show's creators fixed problems from their 1996 version, but while there's no real plot or musical snafus evident, there's also not a lot to get excited about. The score's all too reminiscent of the creators' past works, though there's something markedly bizarre about a series of duets between two men who essentially sound the same (Martin and his imposter Arnaud). As to the treatment of the Protestant-Catholic conflicts that are the historical background of the era, the score might as well be talking about the star-bellied Sneetches and the plain-bellied Sneetches.
The cast is hard-working and talented, the choreography energetic if a little repetitious in its "peasant dance" roots, and the show is capably directed by Conall Morrison. But by the time John Napier's downright unappealing set is torched for some closing pyrotechnics, it's clear that while there's smoke and fire bookending this unremarkable evening, the elements in between are too much like a half-grilled cheese sandwich; a little bland and still underdone.