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Billie Joe Armstrong has written some terrific, faux-Beatles pop songs for Rolin Jones’ theatrical updating of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set in freewheeling 1964 London.
Unfortunately, These Paper Bullets! is not a musical, but rather a laborious farce, uneasily combining satirical riffs on The Bard with tired spoofing of The Fab Four. Since both ideas have been done to death over the years, there’s little that’s fresh here, although admittedly plenty of energy is expended in the execution.
Previously seen at Yale Repertory Theatre and Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, the show hews so closely to Shakespeare’s original that a pre-attendance refresher course wouldn’t be a bad idea. The sparring couple at its center, Beatrice and Benedick, are now celebrity fashion designer Bea (Nicole Parker) and Ben (Justin Kirk), one of the members of a world-famous pop band called The Quartos (these are the jokes, folks).
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Bea’s cousin, Hero — excuse me, Higgy (Ariana Venturi), in this version — is a drug-addled, Twiggy-style fashion model who’s desperately pursued by The Quartos’ Claude (Bryan Fenkart). Their blossoming relationship threatens to be derailed by the machinations of Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the drummer who was unceremoniously booted from the band (points awarded if you know that the actual fifth Beatle was Pete Best). He seeks revenge by leaking doctored sex photos of Higgy to the media.
Attempting to cram in as many allusions to Shakespeare as possible, the wildly overlong play set largely at the fancy Hotel Messina (if you don’t recognize the name, you haven’t done your homework) also references the bumbling constable Dogberry via an equally silly Scotland Yard Inspector, Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), and his hapless minions. Even the Queen shows up, naturally played by a man in drag (a very funny Christopher Geary).
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Awkwardly interpolating bits of Shakespearean verse, the show wears thin very quickly, with the overstuffed, convoluted plot further burdened by the generally witless dialogue. That’s assuming you can hear the latter, since the thick British and Liverpudlian accents adopted by the performers often render them virtually unintelligible.
The playwright — who penned such acclaimed works as The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and The Jammer, and has written for TV shows including Weeds, Friday Night Lights and Boardwalk Empire — is aiming at low-hanging fruit here. Thanks to the sheer volume of gags, some of them work, and director Jackson Gay succeeds in creating a frenetically paced atmosphere redolent of mod London. The performers certainly give it their all, and Jessica Ford’s costumes (love those miniskirts!) and the wigs and hairstyles (the Quartos appropriately sport mop-tops) are spot on.
But the chief pleasures of the show stem from the handful of Armstrong’s original pastiche songs, which ape the Beatles’ music in all its glorious exuberance and stylistic diversity. (Composer Tom Kitt, who wrote Next to Normal and If/Then, and worked with Armstrong on the American Idiot musical, did the pitch-perfect orchestrations.) The problem is that there aren’t nearly enough of them, and there’s too much of everything else.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: James Barry, Stephen DeRosa, Bryan Fenkart, Christopher Geary, Bard Heberlee, Justin Kirk, Tony Manna, Andrew Museelman, Keira Naughton, Adam O’Bryne, Lucas Papaelias, Nicole Parker, Greg Stuhr, Ariana Venturi, Liz Wisan
Playwright: Rolin Jones
Songs: Billie Joe Armstrong
Director: Jackson Gay
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Jessica Ford
Lighting designer: Paul Whitaker
Music & sound designer: Broken Chord
Projection designer: Nicholas Hussong
Orchestrations: Tom Kitt
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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