BEVERLY -- Sometimes it's better to be unfaithful.
That's the lesson, anyway, from the musical adaptation of "The Three Musketeers" now making its New England debut at North Shore Music Theatre. It's true not only for the lovelorn D'Artagnan, whose beloved is inconveniently wedded to another, but for the creators of this excessively reverent treatment of the Alexandre Dumas novel. In plot and tone, Peter Raby's book hews remarkably close to the original -- which means it has almost nothing to do with what modern audiences actually like about "The Three Musketeers."
That would be the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, with their sword fights and swashbuckling, their roguish good humor and comradery-in-arms. Sure, we care about the wannabe fourth, D'Artagnan, but not because he's in love with Constance or because he's engaged in a drawn-out plan to retrieve some missing diamonds in order to foil Cardinal Richelieu's scheming against Queen Anne; heck, who's Queen Anne again? We care about D'Artagnan because he wants to be a musketeer.
And why do we care about that? Because musketeers are really cool.
You would think this would be an easy concept for the makers of a musical to grasp. Give the guys a bunch of nifty capes and weapons, stitch together the merest scrap of a plot -- sure, keep Dumas's diamonds and the cardinal and the queen if you want, but make sure they're just a backdrop for the real stars, the musketeers -- and let the swordplay begin.
Instead, Raby, along with lyricist Paul Leigh and composer George Stiles, keeps dragging us back into the interminable murk of the plot. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis barely register as individuals in the first act; they're just part of a gang of musketeers that, for reasons we never quite grasp, the country boy D'Artagnan wants to join. We know he's in love with the legend of the musketeers, but we never get a chance to fall in love with that legend ourselves.
Perhaps because of the misplaced focus on political intrigue, the score rarely sends off sparks of excitement, either. Song after song lopes along in a ponderous, long-winded rhythm; Stiles's heart seems to lie in moodily atmospheric slow numbers like "Paris By Night" or the sweet love ballad "Who Could Have Dreamed of You?" rather than in the moments that could have created rousing anthems. At the pivotal point when the boys declare themselves "all for one and one for all," for example, we get only the lame "Count Me In," which sounds no less thudding and dull when it returns at the end.
The guys, particularly Aaron Tveit as the boyish D'Artagnan and John Schiappa as the brooding Athos, gamely give it their all. But they're repeatedly hamstrung by the plodding story and score, which also seem to cast a dreary spell over the lackluster choreography. Lez Brotherston's rough-hewn set and lustrous costumes have a gloomy grandeur, as does Hugh Vanstone's shadowy lighting, but gloom is not what a swashbuckler should provide.
It's almost as if this "Three Musketeers" wants to be "Les Miserables" with fencing. Indeed, the second act opens with a tableau that could be a rehearsal for North Shore's forthcoming production of that show. But you'd think one picturesque barricade-in-the-round per season would be plenty.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.