These Paper Bullets!
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Through Oct. 18
Paradoxically, the smartest and most brilliant of the four musicals under discussion is also the most irksomely confused. These Paper Bullets! most candidly incarnates “A Modish Ripoff of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” set in swinging 1964 London with yet another mock burlesque of the Beatles. The show had great success at Yale Rep last season, and after its run here at the Geffen will move to the coproducing company, New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. It’s a flashily attired and accoutered extravaganza that flails to reconcile its clashing tones, often shrilly tiresome, if punctuated at intermittent intervals by passing wit and spasmodic fits of genuine Brit silliness, though with precious little satiric glee.
It’s an open secret among actors that Much Ado About Nothing invariably plays like gangbusters with audiences, who revel in the Beatrice-Benedek verbal jousting. One wishes it could form a better backbone for this fruitily overstuffed script. Ben, a less malign version of John Lennon, spars with former flame Bea, herself a happening fashion designer (and equally savvy marketer of her own celebrity), yet despite the game verve of bright actors Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker, neither the hostility nor the attraction ever adequately ignite. The same could be said of Rolin Jones’s dementedly ambitious writing, which derives most of its spark either from Shakespeare himself or from deft goofs in response to his dialogue.
The transpositions of the subplots to another eon are necessarily spotty, tending to devolve into the least common denominator of durable types, eliciting more reductive cliché than inspired counterpoint. And while the subject is certainly a musical one, the relatively few songs are dead-on pastiches of early period Fab Four wrought by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, a pleasing diversion, but after fifty years of groups whose albums aspire to be “Beatlesque,” hardly qualifies as a novelty.
The period is wrought in the most elaborate and exaggerated terms, with knowing design riffs, particularly from Jessica Ford’s take-no-prisoners costuming excesses and arranger-orchestrator Tom Kitt’s fashionable evocation of the great zeitgeist shift from music hall through skiffle to rock ‘n’ roll. (Kitt won a Pulitzer and two Tonys for his rock score for 2009’s Next to Normal, so while it’s nice to hear him work a fun gig, I couldn’t help preferring we were watching one of his own musicals.)
Throughout the overextended antics, one wishes the show had found a more coherent sense of its own distinct identity. Seeing shortly afterward the west coast premiere at South Coast Rep of One Man, Two Guv’nors, the juggernaut gloss on Goldoni updated to Brighton a bare year earlier (see Terry Morgan’s review here [link]), it’s quite apparent that everyone involved with These Paper Bullets! had at least one eye cocked on that success, and were determined to up the ante on every front. It turns out that when the bluff inevitably gets called, they forfeit the pot. It’s almost always just a wee bit shy of fun for all the forceful antics.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Through October 18. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.