How strange: The Three Musketeers hardly ever use their muskets. They’re far more comfy flashing swords, and in Ken Ludwig’s irreverent stage version of “The Three Musketeers,” the swords are like appendages to their bodies — I counted five fights in about the first half hour. It’s a dream come true for a theatrical fight director. One of the great ones is directing the entire show at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and there’s barely a minute to catch your breath.
Rick Sordelet, with 66 Broadway directing credits in the sword-fight, fist-fight and stunt department (including every Disney stage production and also currently on Broadway, “Sunset Boulevard”) is at the helm here and far be it from me — or anyone — to mess with the guy. This time, with the whole shebang under control, he leaves the choreography and direction of many-many-many scenes of swordplay to his son Christian Kelly-Sordelet, also an accomplished fight master.
The show is played en garde, so be ready always for action that weaves itself neatly into the storyline. Ludwig’s plot follows the main twists of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, sometimes more (when it involves the uneasy power feuds between King Louis XIII and French Cardinal Richelieu) and sometimes less (when Ludwig subverts the details and invents some characters, including a major one). But Ludwig — known most for his amply produced farce “Lend Me a Tenor” — is well aware of what plays on a stage versus in a book, and his version of “The Three Musketeers” makes for a richly silly two hours of laughs.
Not only are the fights fun to watch (a little scary, too, when the swordplay involves more than a handful of men and women at once), but Sordelet’s cast is great to be with. The musketeers are Zack Robidas (the fashionable one), Alexander Sovronsky (the one who quotes the Bible, sometimes correctly) and Ian Merrill Peakes (the most imposing of the three, with a constant let’s-go-guys! attitude). They run through the show with an implied wink toward the audience and among themselves. We’re having a good time with this story, they telegraph.
Sean Patrick Higgins is a charmer as the lead character, D’Artagnan, who travels in Ludwig’s version with his sister (Stephanie Hodge) from their countryside home to Paris so that he can become one of King Louis XIII’s famed musketeers. But not so fast. The Cardinal (Paul Kiernan) comes to hate the young man, as does the woman who is the cardinal’s evil gofer (Stella Baker). So, at first, do the musketeers, after he meets them separately and manages to tick off each one.
Meanwhile King Louis XIII (played just right as a nincompoop by Dan Hodge) is having troubles not only with the Cardinal but with his queenly wife (Marnie Schulenburg), who’s having an affair with a Brit. Her lady-in-waiting (the lovely Kelsey Rainwater) arranges the trysts for the queen — as well as her own, with D’Artagnan.
In a turnabout of plot normalcy, we end up rooting for the Queen and her lover; I can’t remember the last time I sat in an audience mentally carrying the banner for adultery. But that’s part of the goofy complications in the way Ludwig’s script unfolds and besides, everything ends up … oh, I’m not going to tell you.
If you have fun watching the show — really, I don’t know how you couldn’t — think of the good time costume designer Samantha Fleming must have had outfitting the characters in rich costumes right out of the 1620s. Sovronsky, one of the musketeers, designed the crisp sound for the show and composed its bouncy original music, and Brian Sidney Bembridge designed the movable modular set that stagehands and sometimes actors move around swiftly as scenes change. Swiftly: That’s that key word in the night’s rhythm and feel.
—“The Three Musketeers” runs through August 6 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. 610-282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.
The cast performs the show in repertory with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at alternating performances. That show runs also through August 6. For Howard Shapiro review, click here.