There’s not a helicopter or a barricade to be seen in “Martin Guerre,” the new Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg musical that takes as its source the same 16 th-century French story to have inspired two well-known films and as many rival musicals. This story isn’t about scenery — though designer Nick Ormerod certainly provides some, principally a handful of shifting towers recognizable to anyone who saw “Dreamgirls” or the London “Chess”– or about sensationalism: It’s a far less manipulative occasion than its creators’ previous “Miss Saigon.”
What, then, is “Martin Guerre” about? That proves a more difficult question to answer, and it’s one the considerable lineup of talent behind the project hasn’t come to grips with either. Part tract, part slushy romance, the musical wants to engineer by whatever means possible the same audience-pleasing highs as “Saigon” or “Les Miserables,” while rooting its tale in the fearsome sectarian hatred of the Reformation that lives on in different guises today.
No wonder the show seems as confused as the conflicting passions it portrays. It’s a would-be “Peter Grimes”– the Benjamin Britten opera about a man besieged by his village, the musical undulations of which Schonberg’s eclectic score evokes at the start — that can’t resist the easy seductions of schlock.
Nor, surprisingly, can it always sustain a narrative that turns out to be a partial flashback and has numerous lapses in logic, some of them shared by the (superior) 1982 Daniel Vigne movie “The Return of Martin Guerre.”
One of the achievements of “Miss Saigon” was to allow individuals to emerge from a teeming backdrop, but “Guerre” is too blurred to bring anyone into focus. The central character is neither Martin Guerre (Matt Rawle), thought killed in combat in Flanders; nor the young wife, Bertrande (Juliette Caton), whom he left behind; nor even Arnaud du Thil (Iain Glen), newly arrived in provincial Artigat to pick up seven years later where his friend Martin left off.
The musical’s real subject seems to be the village in all its cruel, impersonal fury. Sure, the resident hags get a comedy number, “Over a Year,” that is this show’s putative answer to “Master of the House” from “Les Miz.” But when the three crones aren’t kicking up their heels, chief villain Guillaume (Jerome Pradon) is kicking the village cripple, Benoit (Michael Matus). That Benoit loses his beloved scarecrow — the subject of the show’s most embarrassing number, “Louison”– to mob violence suggests that these townsfolk live by taunting alone; “State Fair” this ain’t.
The musical roughly follows the contours of the various films, the American “Sommersby” included, while making it clear from the start that Arnaud is an imposter. Why, then, does the village not see through the “false” Martin at once , as Bertrande does? (The fact that sex helps silence her doubts is muted in the musical.) The suggestion that the community somehow “needs” Martin Guerre makes no sense at all, since when last seen they were hounding him out of town for impotence.
And what is going on in a second-act company chorale, “The Imposters,” that aims to implicate everyone — not least the audience — in the mounting lies and betrayals? The number is a slower, failed replication of the great march on the audience near the end of “Sweeney Todd,” which director Declan Donnellan staged triumphantly at the National three years ago.
To many, Donnellan’s participation will be the most puzzling aspect of a show that yokes one of this director’s favorite milieus — peasant life — to the demands of the musical behemoth that couldn’t be further from his defining work with the Cheek By Jowl touring company. The director’s strengths are clear from several Breughel-esque tableaux, not to mention the Millet-like start and close of the show, as the villagers mime their labor. He is helped, too, by a canny choreographer in Bob Avian, who couples the dance crazes du jour, “Riverdance” and “Stomp,” in various fiery step routines, one of which –“Now You’ve Come Home”– genuinely stops the show.
But for all the ecclesiastical numbers (the tellingly named “Bethlehem” among them), swelling harmonies and choruses, each one expertly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, Donnellan is powerless to enliven the schmaltzy, and endlessly reprised, “All I Know.” Or to find wit in lyrics that rhyme “myrrh” and “her.” (The lyricist is newcomer Edward Hardy, with an assist from Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer.)
And though Donnellan would seem the ideal director for the classically trained Glen, this show is unlikely to make of its young Scottish star a new Colm Wilkinson or Jonathan Pryce. It’s not just that Glen sings flat throughout; even approximating the notes, he’s a more appealing presence than his pop-trained, anodyne co-star, Caton, who comes nowhere near the mystery Nathalie Baye brought to the role onscreen. Glen’s assuredness onstage provides a welcome contrast to colleagues Rawle and Pradon, who seemingly prefer chewing the scenery to acting upon it.
The truth is that everyone seems caught in the crossfire of a show about identity that has no identity of its own, and it is that question which must first be addressed if this “Martin Guerre” is to come out fighting.