February 14, 2000
Martin Guerre, the powerful and emotion-packed musical, was recently on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Presented by Cameron Mackintosh, the famed producer of big-time hits such as Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon, the show is a haunting love story set amid the religious conflicts and superstitions of 16th-century France.
The musical is based on the legend of a soldier who arrives in a small village in France claiming to be Martin Guerre, a native son who had disappeared seven years earlier. This story has intrigued people for hundreds of years and inspired movies, novels, and other plays. Mackintosh's production aims straight for the heart and pulls audiences in with a vise-like grip that refuses to let go until the final curtain.
The thematic qualities of mystery, deception, adventure, ambition, and secret desire combine to offer an engrossing human drama, capable of surprising and moving theatergoers. It speaks loudly, often roars its messages, with music and lyrics (the composing-writing team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg) that explode with passion.
Hugh Panaro makes a fine Martin Guerre, who shows confusion, anger, and finally understanding in his path to adulthood. Stephen R. Buntrock, as Guerre's friend Arnaud, is strong and gentle, yet able to show the anguish of a lover caught in a web of deceit. Both men are well-matched musically, as they have powerful voices and are made up to resemble one another believably.
Erin Dilly, as Bertrande, is poignant in her portrayal of Guerre's lonely wife. She sings with pure, honest emotion, especially in her duets with Buntrock. A definite highlight of the show is the village fool, Benoit (the talented Michael Arnold), who proves to be wiser than everyone else. Arnold makes Benoit charming, funny, and kind, as he capers with his scarecrow Louison and engages in various humorous antics.
There are wonderful scenes detailing village life (harvest dances and a peasant wedding), and plenty of special effects to satisfy those who love spectacle on stage (a huge booming cannon and a real burning wall). The choreography (David Bolger) is filled with stomps, spins, somersaults, and other athletic movements, all of which are performed with amazing energy and spirit by the talented ensemble of actor-singers. All of this takes place on a simple, yet functional set design (John Napier) against a rich and sensuous lighting scheme (Howard Harrison).
With its star performances, impressive music score, and captivating tale, Martin Guerre is a memorable evening of entertainment.