It’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out for Gallic-themed musicals on the West End, where “Napoleon” is sure to fight its own personal Waterloo against the critics just as this year’s “Lautrec” and “Notre-Dame de Paris” have before it. How will audiences react? (After all, let us not forget that “Les Miz” in 1985 received a pretty poor opening night press.) That depends on their willingness to endure a comic book view of history, not to mention romance, that rarely rises above the Mills and Boon-type quotes splayed across the front of the Shaftesbury Theater: “For you, I would tear the world apart.” The upside is a smartly drilled production from American opera director Francesca Zambello, making her commercial theater debut, and a scintillating design from Michael Yeargan that is consistently more agile than either the score or book. And yet, all the scenic legerdemain in the world counts for nothing if the material is soft at its core: “Napoleon” the musical makes a lot of noise about very little, indeed.
The show was first produced in a separate production at Toronto’s Elgin Theater in 1994, and it hasn’t helped the cause of co-writers Timothy Williams (book and score) and Andrew Sabiston (book and lyrics) six years later to seem absolutely the wrong musical at the wrong time. Whatever one thinks of “The Witches of Eastwick” and “The Beautiful Game,” both shows mark genuine attempts to push the musical on (or, in the case of “Witches,” sideways, given the deliberately throwback nature of its score).
“Napoleon,” by contrast, seems stuck in the through-sung groove of the 1980s that would recall “Les Miz” stylistically even if both shows weren’t set in the same country 20 years — and numerous social classes — apart. At least three songs sound like “One Day More” knock-offs, with rabble-rousing, flag-waving imagery to match. Until, that is, Paul Baker’s Napoleon takes center stage in the second act to bellow a crazed (and sustained) soliloquy, by which point history’s most celebrated Corsican seems to have transmogrified into Mama Rose.
On the evidence of “Napoleon,” it’s amazing this general ever got to Moscow at all, since he seems far busier trading psychobabble with young Rose de Beauharnais, aka Josephine (Anastasia Barzee), of an order that Oprah might well recognize . Scarcely have the two met at a ball thrown by Josephine’s sometime soulmate, Therese (Sarah Ingram), before Napoleon is retreating from his own emotional front. Apparently, he needs to “learn just who I am.” Their wayward relationship takes a separate toll on Josephine, who clearly should have spent less time lolling about Malmaison and more time at the shrink. “I want more,” she announces, followed soon after by, “I’ve been afraid to face the truth.” That latter remark gets reprised late on with a general exhortation not to fear the truth.
Taking “Napoleon” at its word, the truth about the show is that the writing is far too vacuous to do justice to the swatch of history (as well as personality) that it takes on, not to mention striking any meaningful parallels to today. (My favorite rhyme, incidentally, has to be “move”/”Louvre.”) A second-act exchange between two of Talleyrand’s more corrupt ministers is portentously handled as if a British audience is expected to mutter in recognition at comparable malfeasance now; they don’t, any more than an explicit jibe at English political chicanery gets a laugh. In this context, a broadside against the British weather, perhaps inevitably, comes off best.
The elements, as it happens, are particularly well handled by Zambello. A billowing sheet becomes an Alpine avalanche, while, later on, the soldiers on the march toward Russia enter the deep freeze in a sequence that could have come from this director’s “War and Peace.”
Yeargan’s levitating set allows for a reprise of the perspectives of Zambello’s recent Royal Opera House “Billy Budd” even as the continually elegant backdrops include a floor-to-ceiling plan de Paris one minute, an angled mirror the next. Josephine’s eventual replacement, the hapless Austrian empress Marie-Louise (Kristin Hellberg), makes her entrance into a ravishing yellow wash lit to full intensity by Rick Fisher; Malmaison, in the meantime, has a Rouault-like sheen. Only Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes suggest a pro forma grandeur: You see the sequins without feeling the sumptuousness.
In any case, the physical trappings can take you only so far if “Napoleon” doesn’t really have a Napoleon. One’s heart goes out to Baker, a new West End leading man — late of “The Lion King” ensemble — possessed of a loud voice and no discernible charisma. (He shares the part with Austrian performer Uwe Kroger, who is a big name on the Continent — the production’s most likely home.) A leader beset by enough voices to give even St. Joan pause, Baker’s Napoleon suggests not so much megalomania as a terminal moroseness, with Barzee’s bland and charmless intended scarcely worth his worries. Napoleon devotees may want to turn for succor to Philip Kaufman’s new movie, “Quills,” in which Ron Cook in just a few minutes of screen time as the pint-sized powerhouse wittily creates an entire character. If only “Napoleon” were so Elba. Sorry, able.