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The Three Musketeers

This earnest, workmanlike adaptation of the classic swashbuckler "The Three Musketeers" as a musical picks up a bit of steam late, when D'Artagnan and his buddy musketeers cede the stage to the leading ladies, who steal the show with serious turns and stirring songs.

With:
D'Artagnan - Kevin Massey Athos - Juan Chioran Aramis - Aaron Ramey Porthos - Steven Jeffrey Ross Milady - Blythe Wilson Constance - Abby Mueller Rochefort - Jeff Parker Bonacieux - Greg Vinkler Planchet - Brian Sills Buckingham - Kevin Asselin Queen Anne - Johanna McKenzie Miller King Louis - Terry Hamilton Cardinal Richelieu - Jeffrey Baumgartner Treville - Neil Friedman

This earnest, workmanlike adaptation of the classic swashbuckler “The Three Musketeers” as a musical picks up a bit of steam late, when D’Artagnan and his buddy musketeers cede the stage to the leading ladies, who steal the show with serious turns and stirring songs. But while those moments deliver a satisfying high point or two, this tuner, with a planned Boston engagement to follow and Broadway in its dreams, doesn’t currently achieve the level of juicy pleasure that Dumas’ sweeping, ever-popular melodrama demands.

Book by Peter Raby does a fair job of condensing Dumas’ plot, although he falters quite significantly both at the beginning, with a gratuitous prologue, and at the end, with an even more gratuitous moral argument involving the work’s doling out of justice.

In between, Raby manages to fit in plenty of the serial tale’s twists and turns without losing coherence. We learn all we need to know about the adventurous, eager young hero D’Artagnan (Kevin Massey), aching for a fight, the musketeers he first angers and then befriends, the woman he loves, the queen he saves, the femme fatale who tries to kill him, and so on.

There’s plenty that gets glossed over, even important character beats. Fundamentally, though, it’s not the narrative that holds things back here, but the playing, which feels more leaden than lively.

For example, director and choreographer David H. Bell stages the first number, “Riding to Paris,” with D’Artagnan moving in slow motion on his fake horse, a technique Bell brings back later, in a climactic sequence when all four heroes are being chased. While it’s a decent, though hardly inspired, visual image, slow motion just doesn’t seem the right choice for moments of enormous anticipation and urgency.

Composer George Stiles, who wrote additional songs for current hit “Mary Poppins,” seems to encourage this pace, as many of the songs have a surprisingly, even self-consciously, deliberate tempo. Even feel-good numbers like the ode to friendship, “Count Me In,” feel unemotional, struggling for crescendos despite pleasing melodies.

The show — a prior version was performed at the American Musical Theater in San Jose, Calif. — doesn’t bog down. The elaborate sword fights coordinated by Kevin Asselin provide occasional jolts of adrenaline. But, top to bottom, the endeavor lacks imagination, style and, most of all, sheer joie de vivre. At times, it feels downright uneasy with itself, unsure what tone to take. That’s most true with the act two opener “A Good Old-Fashioned War,” which seems intended to go peppy but comes off too restrained.

It’s not easy finding humor in a character who takes himself so seriously, but that’s exactly the challenge of D’Artagnan, and it’s a balance that the highly capable Massey flirts with but never sustains. As Athos, the most serious of the musketeers, Juan Chioran delivers a potent, layered performance, but even he could use more panache covering his all-too-apparent psychological damage.

As Aramis and Porthos, Aaron Ramey and Steven Jeffrey Ross, respectively, insert lighter touches although they can’t lift the near-morose tone of Bell’s production.

The show finally finds a comfort level when the plot turns toward the tragic. Blythe Wilson, as the villainous Milady, lifts the evening to another level when she takes command. Her seduction scenes sizzle and twist convincingly, and her songs soar with passionate conviction, including her climactic duet with D’Artagnan’s beloved, Constance (a strong Abby Mueller).

In the end, this “Three Musketeers” lacks originality — even the songs that work are not memorable — but it makes a pretty convincing case that Milady might justify her own treatment, and that Wilson deserves a larger spotlight.

The Three Musketeers

Chicago Shakespeare Theater; 500 seats; $67 top

Production: A Chicago Shakespeare Theater presentation of a musical in two acts based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, with original concept by William Hobbs, music by George Stiles, lyrics by Paul Leigh and book by Peter Raby. Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell. Music director, Dale Rieling.

Creative: Sets, Tom Burch; costumes, Mariann Verheyen; lighting, Donald Holder; sound Cecil Averett; wigs and make-up, Melissa Veal; musical supervisor, George Stiles; orchestrator, David Shrubsole; fight coordinator, Kevin Asselin; production stage managers, Deborah Acker, Jennifer Matheson Collins. Opened, reviewed Jan. 3, 2007. Runs through Feb. 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: D'Artagnan - Kevin Massey Athos - Juan Chioran Aramis - Aaron Ramey Porthos - Steven Jeffrey Ross Milady - Blythe Wilson Constance - Abby Mueller Rochefort - Jeff Parker Bonacieux - Greg Vinkler Planchet - Brian Sills Buckingham - Kevin Asselin Queen Anne - Johanna McKenzie Miller King Louis - Terry Hamilton Cardinal Richelieu - Jeffrey Baumgartner Treville - Neil FriedmanWith: Rebecca Finnegan, George Keating, Brianna Borger, Devin DeSantis, Constantine Germanacos, Karl Sean Hamilton, John Hickman, Scott Alan Jones, Meg Miller, Jessie Mueller.

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