Shorn of spectacle, stomping, shouting and most of the superfluous plotting, there’s no question that this latest incarnation of the long-troubled tuner “Martin Guerre” is a vast improvement over the production that first underwhelmed the public at London’s Prince Edward Theater in 1996. But an early look at Connall Morrison’s uneven pre-Broadway staging does not explain the rhapsodic reappraisal it received at the hands of the British press when this new version preemed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The show still lacks the emotional wallop it will need to join the American branch of the Cameron Mackintosh hall of fame.
Lord knows, the creative team worked themselves to the bone — effecting radical surgery on book, music and lyrics. Anyone familiar with the London production can only be amazed at how much music has been thrown away. Even the Schonberg ditties that have survived — such as “The Imposter Is Here” or “I’m Martin Guerre” — are either in a different spot in the show or are now attached to different lyrics. But the generally impressive improvements in Schonberg’s score do not have much impact on the main issues here — the music was always strong.
In some respects, the work done by Boublil and Clark on the book and lyrics has also paid a large dividend. The storytelling of the 16th-century French myth is far sharper now — this personal story never needed Declan Donnellan’s epic staging. In this new leaner version, we’re far more focused on the themes that Boublil and Schonberg say they have always wanted to emphasize: a trio of lovers torn apart by religious wars and the agony of striving for passion and friendship in a world of denominational hate.
But there’s another less cohesively presented theme floating around. Bertrande is married to a man she does not love. When the faux Guerre takes his place, she finds passion. So once her original husband returns from the wars, what are her obligations to him? Is illicit love potentially more moral than marital ownership? How do you reconcile new lust with old vows? These issues are still maddeningly obscure here.
Most of the problem lies in the weaker first hour of the show, where we see the heroine with her original husband before the war. The narrative of life with the first Martin is cartoonish and the reason for the lack of marital sex unclear. After Arnaud shows up seven years later and wins over the wife of a man everyone thinks is dead, we spend too little time exploring the passion of their supposedly steamy relationship. Bertrande’s happiness with Arnaud is insufficiently established, so when her husband shows up again on the cusp of intermission, we don’t think she has much to lose. And thus the potentially dramatic second-act trial is not viscerally engaging.
A key problem is too many principal performances without a firm base in truth. Erin Dilly’s vapid Bertrande needs both more stage time and a gutsier, more intense characterization. Hugh Panaro is excellent as the real Martin, but he currently overwhelms Stephen R. Buntrock’s Arnaud (whom he certainly resembles). Arnaud is supposedly the more passionate of the two, and right now Bertrande’s choice makes no sense.
Truth is also undermined by Jose Llana’s mincing Guillaume, played here as the kind of irredeemably nasty Catholic that used to show up in 19th-century melodrama. Since Guillaume has his reasons for bitterness (he loves Bertrande), he could use a tad more balance and shading. And if he does that unnecessary stuff with the crucifix in New York, he may find the mayor trying to close him down (the show’s overtly anti-Catholic sentiments are more problematic in American than Britain, and need modification).
Things fall into a better groove after Michael Arnold’s lovely Benoit makes his first entrance (that character also needs more to do). There’s a terrific triangular scene near the close when we finally start to feel something, and the final minutes of the show — when John Napier’s wood-paneled backdrop literally catches fire — are both emotionally stirring and theatrically compelling.
But that’s not the case for most of the first act, and audience won’t want to wait that long. Overall, it seems that the problems with the new “Guerre” lie more with a tentative American production than with material that has been deftly reshaped to give Mackintosh the hit his persistence deserves. Morrison and his company need to go back into rehearsal and give us something more to believe.