Most are familiar with The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, in which young D'Artagnan leaves home to seek glory as a musketeer. Even so, the show now running at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival surprises you all night with its unending invention.
Playwright Ken Ludwig, modern master of madcap, is best known for his Broadway hit, Lend me a Tenor. In this adaptation, he trims the plot and fills it with gags. Director Rick Sordelet injects a stream of lights, costumes, music, choreographed fights, and startling scene changes. Together, they create a spectacle that fills you with child-like wonder.
Dumas sets his historical romance and adventure in the 17th-century France of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Ludwig hews to the broad outline of the "one for all, all for one" swashbuckling tale, but along the way mixes in original wrinkles.
Most notably, this Musketeers becomes more of a "coming of age" story, with the help of a weathered tricorne hat (the prop takes the place of D'Artagnan's horse in the novel). It helps that physically imposing Esau Pritchett plays both the father and Treville, a father surrogate who commands the musketeers.
Also, Milady (Stella Baker) is no longer an overwhelming paragon of evil. While still a seductive spy for Cardinal Richelieu, now she mainly contrasts with D'Artagnan's love interest, Constance (Kelsey Rainwater), in good girl-bad girl fashion.
Sean Patrick Higgins never stumbles as D'Artagnan. You truly believe he is an ardent, idealistic young man determined to find his way. Stephanie Hodge excels as his tomboy sister, Sabine (another Ludwig creation). Her picturesque stage movement speaks to her endearing energy and pluck.
The three musketeers themselves — actors Alexander Sovronsky, Zack Robidas, and Ian Merrill Peakes — are a steady comic presence, though Athos (played by Peakes, a three-time, Barrymore winner) still has his secret, tragic side. Other members of this stellar cast have their cameo moments.
And yet, the actors only share star billing with Sordelet's lavish staging. On Broadway, he gained fame as a fight scene choreographer. Here, that job goes to Christian Kelly-Sordelet, where balletic, swirling swordplay episodes are so recurring you expect to see one every five minutes.
Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge uses a dramatic, rolling ring of scaffolds and a radiant backdrop. The light design of Masha Tsimring and the music of Alexander Sovronsky help bring off seamless scene changes, while the colorful costumes of Samantha Fleming are a mix of period dress and romantic fantasy.
The show thoroughly wins you over because it stays respectful to the original novel, even as it pokes fun. The Three Musketeers remains vital today, a kind of fairy tale that tells us, in its over-the-top way, of our need to take risks on behalf of honorable purposes.