Woe to the writing team that will forever have new work compared with their singular achievement! It’s a cruel fate. The recent return of “Les Miserables” to the Ahmanson stage only makes the comparison between Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s master-work and their most recent endeavor more immediate. But, of course, suggesting that “Martin Guerre” is not “Les Miz” — and no matter how much the creators continue to re-fashion it, it never will be — doesn’t mean the musical lacks worthwhile moments. There are some. Unfortunately, such faint praise probably represents a good indication of this show’s future prospects; it could potentially draw audiences for a while on Broadway without ever generating a devoted following.
The medieval court case of Martin Guerre has captured the imagination of a series of popular artists, and it’s easy to understand why. In the mid-16th century, a wife brought the man she’d been living with as her husband to court, claiming he was an impostor. Her husband, Martin Guerre, had been gone for 12 years when someone showed up and basically took over his life. The case, which today would send Court TV’s ratings through the roof, managed even before telecommunications to reach the ears of the real Guerre, who showed up to resolve the mystery.
The history book about the case, “The Return of Martin Guerre,” focused primarily on the issue of marital contracts and the economy of betrothals; the impostor, after all, was in it for the money. Dramatic renderings, such as the Jodie Foster-Richard Gere film “Sommersby,” tend to design the tale in one way or another as a love story. Current musical follows suit in that respect, throwing in for good measure some philosophical implications about the nature of identity (ever notice how many words can rhyme with “name”?).
But apparently Boublil and Schonberg also thought that placing the story within the context of the Protestant Reformation would add contemporary relevance and socio-political profundity. In this telling, Martin Guerre (Hugh Panaro) goes off to war to escape the tyrannical demands of the French Catholic town of Artigat, and while he’s gone, his wife, Bertrande de Rols (Erin Dilly), takes over Martin’s role as town scapegoat and converts to Protestantism.
When Guerre evidently dies, his best soldier-friend Arnaud du Thil (Stephen R. Buntrock) goes to tell Bertrande of Martin’s final, loving words, but finds that the fickle and superstitious townspeople, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, immediately insist he’s Martin Guerre.
Although Arnaud tells Bertrande the truth (a plot point that separates this version from previous ones), both decide to continue the charade and find themselves falling passionately in love in the process. Primary catalyst for plot movement is Guillaume (Jose Llana), who has harbored an unrequited love for Bertrande since childhood. Love story joins with the religious elements when Guillaume accuses Arnaud of being not just a fraud, but a heretic. Second act follows Arnaud’s trial and the aftermath of the real Martin’s return.
The political and historical content here is actually just a vehicle for petty grievances, and the digressions from the focal triangle serve to bury any dramatic crispness of the story’s twists. Heights of the show should come when the lovers are center stage, but that’s not the case. Most moving moments involve Benoit (Michael Arnold), the village idiot whose simple, clear love for a scarecrow and tuneful song, “Who?,” provide some poignancy desperately lacking in the rest of the piece.
The songs, some nicely melodic, others just generic, tend to achieve a greater power when reprised later on as the thematic elements come together. A lack of clear motivation and depth in the characters limits the performances, although the lead singers here all have polished voices and hit the emotional chords when they come along. Duets early on from Panaro and Buntrock are especially pleasing.
Director Conall Morrison keeps the show moving, and, with production values of a high order, it’s certainly never tedious. It just never fully works. The problem is that Boublil and Schonberg work arduously at creating shades of gray, but end up instead with a pervasive muddiness.