“Merry Wives, the Musical”

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (UK) • 9 December 2006 • 7:30pm

Adapted from Shakespeare by Gregory Doran. Music by Paul Englishby. Lyrics by Ranjit Bolt.
Direction: Gregory Doran. With Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Simon Callow (Sir John Falstaff),…

Now approximately halfway through their “Complete Works” festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company have decided to turn The Merry Wives of Windsor, generally considered as one of the least successful of Shakespeare comedies, into a musical. It’s interesting to note that The Merry Wives has already influenced a significant number of operas, including of course Verdi’s Falstaff or Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love… but there was no known adaptation into a musical yet.

I’ll take the short route and state that the result will remain as one of the most exhilarating theatregoing experiences of my life. I was thrilled by the ingeniousness of the staging, the quality and diversity of the score, the dazzling choreography and the breathtaking amount of talent on stage.

Most musical numbers are so well designed they create a sense of ceaseless amazement. Among them are the opening number of the second part of the show and the “title song,” “Merry Wives,” which culminates in a wonderful percussion number.

And, of course, there is the ever magnificent Judi Dench. At one point in the show, she demonstrates how just one look can throw a complete audience into spasms of laughter. I swear it was just one look, and I swear I could hardly catch my breath afterwards, just as about everybody sitting around me. I call that priceless theatrical magic.

Simon Callow replaced an injured Desmond Barrit at the last minute, and he gives a hell of a performance as Falstaff. Unfortunately, he is only a passable singer, even though he cheats his way through in a satisfactory manner. And there are several glorious singers in the rest of the cast, most notably Martin Crewes as Fenton and Alistair McGowan as Frank Ford.

This is definitely one of the best new musical comedies I’ve seen in recent years, up there with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Drowsy Chaperone.

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