July 10 saw the London opening of the highly-anticipated new Cameron Mackintosh musical, Martin Guerre, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators of Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. But The Goodman Theatre beat them to the punch: Their production of The House of Martin Guerre bowed on July 1 to a set of critical notices that should have Broadway producers and theatre owners shuttling between the West End and the Windy City for a bit of comparison shopping.
The legend of Martin Guerre -- based on a real sixteenth-century court case -- has loomed large of late, inspiring a new book by Natalie Zinn Davis, a French movie starring Gerard Depardieu, the Jodie Foster-Richard Gere film, Sommersby, and now, these two musical versions. The Chicago production has music and lyrics by Canadian Leslie Arden, known for her children's musicals Harvest Moon Rising and The Prince and Pauper. She co-wrote the book for Martin Guerre with Anna Theresa Cascio, who numbers among her credits writing for the TV series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and the play Rushmore, which was produced at San Francisco's ACT. Goodman resident director David Petrarca has staged the epic production, which features a cast of 26 and plays through August 4 on the theatre's Main Stage.
The Chicago version purports to tell the story through the perspective of Bertrande, a young girl who at the age of 11 is wed to 14-year-old Martin Guerre. The young man balks at this merging of a French village's two most powerful families and runs off to fight for Spain in the religious wars wracking Europe.
Eight years later, a man claiming to be Martin Guerre returns and claims Bertrande who falls passionately in love with him. But the man is an impostor, and in the court case that ensues when the real Martin materializes, the mystery is whether the young girl knew his true identity all along or not.
"On one level it is an incredibly romantic love story told over a period of 30 years that witnesses great upheaval," says Petrarca. "The great societal changes of a world moving from the cusp of the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, of religion and superstition to reason and emancipation, is reflected in the transformations that occur between both Bertrande and Martin Guerre. Our musical has a contemporary feel and modern sensibility informing it. The whole idea of the need for change and the fear of it gives the show a real pertinence to what we're going through today."
Those issues of liberation are enhanced by the fact that the show has been written by women, an all too rare phenomenon in theatre, much less musical theatre. "The emotions in the piece are incredibly high, and that works very well for a musical," says Petrarca. "The life and death stakes, the bigger idea of the individual versus the collective of the village, all conspire to make the show sing."
And, indeed, who better than women to express the redemptive power of loveespecially in a story about a con-man who is reformed by its ineffable power and an ordinary young woman who finds the strength in herself to make some heroic choices?
-- by Patrick Pacheco