Spoiler alert: Ken Ludwig is my least favorite playwright.
I squirm during his comedies. He strives for the lowest common denominator and always hits it squarely. Easy laughs and low-rent stage business are mother's milk to him. Logic and truth, in character and plot, are impediments. Moon Over Buffalo (1995), a backstage sitcom and vehicle for the Broadway return of Carol Burnett, is Ludwig's most consistently even comedy. And his first play, Lend Me a Tenor (1986), a knockabout farce, is his most successful work. As you read this, Tenor is being performed somewhere in the world. His stylish Gershwin catalog musical Crazy for You (1992), with choreography by Susan Stroman, won a deserved Tony for Best Musical.
But his world premieres for the Alley have been fairly dismal. Remember Leading Ladies (2004), a very dreary take on a Some Like It Hot premise? How about Be My Baby (2005)? Written for Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter, a bickering odd couple find love when they're asked to travel to Scotland to pick up an adopted baby. Or what about his soggy adaptation of Treasure Island (2007)? And then there was An American in Paris (2008), an egregious musical mishmash of Gershwin via Republic Pictures. What a dud. So you can understand why I was a bit anxious to see another Ludwig work.
But, lo and behold, what do I find at the Alley but a merry adventure, an old-fashioned romp, a well-told tale about loyalty, courage, and bromance. This is Alexandre Dumas' stirring The Three Musketeers, the ultimate summer read for anyone who likes hearty historical fiction. And Ludwig doesn't mess it up. He barely touches it, keeping Dumas' serpentine plotlines secure and taut. The Alley actors, directed with sprightly hand by Mark Shanahan, deliciously munch on all the scenery at hand. Playing to the far rows, the whole affair is breezy and relaxed while also theatrically broad and grand. There are plenty of nudges at us not to take everything so serious, and the mustiness of this 19th-century novel about palace intrigues during 17th-century France is newly and neatly refurbished.
There's almost an impromptu feeling as the play gallops along. A royal bed is rolled through a low door. When it's in place, the feather ornaments on the headboard are flicked up with comic timing. For a speedy entrance, Cardinal Richelieu (Todd Waite, having a magnificent go – all a swirl in voluminous blood-red robes) is quickly wheeled in on his heavy ceremonial chair. It's on casters, so the scene can begin immediately. There's no down time anywhere. During one scene, David Rainey lost half his pasted-on mustache. He caught it in his hand and threw it on the nearby bed. For a nano-second it stopped his rhythm. What's he going to do? Like the pro he is, he ripped off the other half and threw it on the bed, too. In the spirit of this accidental moment, it was a gallant gesture. The audience applauded as if he were Cyrano.
Who wouldn't have fun play-acting in such a grand tale? There are sword fights to rival an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, poisonings, evil machinations, adultery, puppy love, greed, lust for power, midnight trysts, leather doublets and plumed hats. What's not to love?
Except for our four heroes (Athos —- Jay Sullivan; Porthos – Seth Andrew Bridges; Aramis – David Matranga; D'Artagnan – Stanley Andrew Jackson III), along with Richelieu (Waite) and D'Artagnan's sister Sabine (Victoria Valentine), all other actors play multiple roles, and there must be plenty of action backstage to match what's on stage as wigs are switched, dresses put on, cloaks unfurled before the next entrance.
Dylan Godwin makes quite a meal out of Louis XIII, all mince and lace. I think his garters have garters. Julia Krohn, as evil Milady de Winter, relishes the hellion she protrays, and Melissa Pritchett, as faithless Queen Anne, looks royal indeed in that splendid crown by costumer Alejo Vietti. His costumes are glorious to watch in action.
Though played in a unit set, designer Hugh Landwehr supplies a great looking one, a child's pop-up book, a cut-out facade of arches and geegaws, ringed by two staircases. For staging a sword fight, two is always better. And honorable mention must be paid to H. Russ Brown for his exhilarating fight direction. The duels look dangerous, which is exactly how they're supposed to look. Choreographed to the second, they are exciting to watch, and each workout gets a burst of grateful applause.
John Gromada's original music isn't as lush as it should be. Dumas' bold derring-do demands Korngold's cinematic trumpet riffs and swelling strings, not timid harpsichord noodling. The fight scenes are better scored, thumping drums and creepy bass, but they have the sound of sci-fi, not classic golden age Hollywood.
But the question remains: why is Sabine in this play? I can't figure out what's she's doing here. OK, she's good with a foil. A dubious premise at best for a rural maid in antique France, but I can put that aside. She tags along with D'Artagnan so she can attend school in Paris, but she wants adventure, like her brother, and runs off for a great deal of the play. She falls for Aramis, who doesn't want anything to do with a tomboy, so that minor comic plot goes nowhere. Ludwig has morphed D'Artagnan's trusty servant Planchet into Sabine. It's a clunky devise and doesn't work for Dumas. It smells of pandering,or desperation.
But all in all, with its epic sweep and grand values of brotherhood, justice, and honor, The Three Musketeers is a royal theater treat for children of all ages. Ludwig, you did good. You, too, Alley.
The Three Musketeers continues through June 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday at The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $28-$100.