Hold the front page: Judi Dench cartwheels across the Royal Shakespeare Company mainstage into the wings in “Merry Wives — The Musical.” Actually, she doesn’t. It’s a stunt double, but Dench raises a huge laugh staggering back on as if she really did it. It’s the second-funniest moment in the show. The first is when she totters on to be confronted by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ high-perspective Tudor-style set and looks startled to see herself taller than a house. Unfortunately, when the highpoints of a comedy musical are two incidental, off-text sight gags — deliciously played though they are — something is awry.
Taking Shakespeare’s slightest and silliest comedy and adding music is not only a fine idea in principle but one that’s often worked in practice, most famously in Verdi’s crowning achievement, “Falstaff.” But where Rodgers & Hart made a musical winner out of “The Comedy of Errors” with “The Boys From Syracuse” by fully refashioning both text and tone, adaptor-director Gregory Doran keeps as much of Shakespeare as he can in “Merry Wives.” He even fleshes out the role of Mistress Quickly for Dench by bringing in material from earlier Falstaff plays.
At the same time, Doran and the creative team add 20 musical numbers in almost as many styles. The pastiche pile-up runs from sticky power ballads — given an Andrew Lloyd Webber twang by ceaseless upward inflections from Martin Crewes (late of London’s “The Woman in White”) as young lover Fenton — to extended Gilbert & Sullivan-esque ensemble numbers, as in the sung-through scene in which the wives trick Falstaff (Simon Callow) into a laundry basket.
And then there’s the tango for the men, a tap routine, an arch wives’ duet that sounds like an outtake from Bernstein’s “Candide,” a brooding song of threat that’s straight out of Kurt Weill and a sub-Susan Stroman sequence with everyone bashing pots and pans in an effort to cook up a hoedown.
The 15-member band runs to flugelhorn, accordion and double percussion, conjuring an astonishing array of colors and proving composer Paul Englishby is a superb orchestrator. However, his songs lack audible shape, beholden as they are to rambling lyrics by Ranjit Bolt, better known as a highly skilled translator.
For all the occasional flashes of wit, too many of the songs descend into sung plot. Together with a sound design that turns muddy once there are more than two voices, they’re hard to take in, let alone sing. And although the romp-like production clearly isn’t aiming for through-composed stylistic unity, so many extreme changes of gear drain the show of any attempt at cumulative rhythm.
That problem is exacerbated by the design. Picture-book Elizabethan houses are flown in and out, but they create overly long, flaccid transitions. A late domestic fireside scene of reconciliation between the husbands and wives has a warm glow as well as the best, most touching song, in which Alistair McGowan’s jealous Ford begs forgiveness. But it points up the lack of sustained atmosphere.
The striking costumes, meanwhile, are more Elizabeth II. Exquisitely decked out in the post-war New Look — all cinched waists, full skirts and pert millinery — Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath have a whale of a time preening and plotting revenge on Falstaff. But they’re surrounded by a potpourri of looks from doublet and hose to a punk-like Mohican haircut, plus a forest finale out of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
The actors try to inject energy into Doran’s strained production. Without going over the top — not a phrase applicable to every cast member — Paul Chahidi gloriously mangles the language as a furious, heavily accented French Dr. Caius. And Brendan O’Hea, unrecognizable in big hair and camp swashbuckling garb (think Jack Sparrow), breathes touching life into Pistol.
As for the leads, Dench mines her material for truth and Callow battles gamely with the demands of the score from beneath an outsize fatsuit. Neither of them, alas, truly convinces auds that they wouldn’t be a whole lot happier doing the original play.
The company is aiming to bring the show to London in 2007. Dench’s presence will ensure ticket sales, but when everyone lustily belts out the country-and-western title song — “Merry wives, merry wives/Sugar and spice and honeydew/Merry wives, merry wives/Coming soon to a town near you” — it feels, well, overly ambitious.