This show is basically a Western-themed version of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play, of course, was one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies, and has been musicalized several times before, most famously as one of Verdi’s all-time masterpieces, Falstaff. In addition, there are at least four other operatic versions—an Italian Opera Buffa version by Antonio Salieri, of all people, a half-forgotten Bel Canto version by half-forgotten Bel Canto composer Michael Balfe, a German Singspiel by Otto Nicolai that has remained a minor part of the operatic repertory to this day, and a setting by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams called Sir John In Love. But given that all of these operas by notable Classical composers have always pretty much lived in Falstaff‘s shadow, where does that leave this unambitious off-Broadway musical comedy?
Well, it isn’t the worst off-Broadway comedy I’ve covered (compared to Gutenberg! The Musical! or Fifty Shades! The Musical Parody, it looks downright respectable), but it isn’t remotely on the level of the earlier versions and doesn’t pretend to be. The humor in the dialogue is extremely corny, featuring some groan-inducing puns and portraying Dr. Caius as a French caricature (granted, he was also essentially one in the play, but without Shakespeare’s writing, the result comes across as much less funny). And despite the occasional moderately clever allusion to the source material, the level of the dialogue is a pretty far cry from Shakespearean.
Also, the lyrics are generally quite weak, featuring lines like “Cold cold cash and red-hot sex”. This is particularly a letdown on Falstaff’s “A Man For the Age”, which needs to be uproarious and instead comes off as dull and underwhelming. But the story the show inherited from its source is still a gigantic asset, and, weak lyrics notwithstanding, the music itself is tuneful and flavorful. Apart from Falstaff’s two big comedy numbers and the lame comic bits for Dr. Caius and Slender, pretty much everything in the score is at least decent, and the sprightly “Quail Bagging”, the mournful a capella harmonizer “Hard Times”, and the love music for Fenton and Anne (“Prairie Moon”, “Cowboy’s Dream”, and especially the beautiful “Count On My Love”) are quite fine. Still, even at its best, this score does not approach the level of Verdi’s weakest operas, let alone Falstaff, so it feels more than a little redundant given that they both musicalize almost the exact same story.
What this show reminds me of most is a second-tier Fifties cult flop called First Impressions, an adaptation of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Like this show, it was a pleasant little musical whose fatal flaw was that it didn’t live up to its legendary source material. Like First Impressions, this show isn’t terrible on its own, but it comes off as a massive disappointment given what it’s based on. And at least First Impressions didn’t have to compete with several existing musicalizations of the same material, including one of the greatest works of music theater ever written. Perhaps a better comparison would be Oh, Brother, another poorly-conceived musical from past decades that was based on a Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) that had already been made into an infinitely greater musical (Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse). But given that Oh, Brother lasted a total of three performances, I’m not entirely sure why they thought it was a model worth imitating.
If Falstaff had been a legendary Broadway musical rather than an opera, the creators would probably have been smart enough not to attempt this in the first place (can you imagine third-rate talents like this trying to musicalize, say, Pygmalion?). But given the perceived cultural gap between the two works, I have to assume they were banking on their audience not being familiar with Falstaff and thus having no standards for comparison. But even without that factor, the original play itself does more than enough to make this show look bad by comparison to begin with. Apparently there was briefly some idea that this show was going to transfer to Broadway, but it passed. This isn’t the worst Shakespeare-based musical of all time by any means (that honor probably goes to the laughable Seventies Rock musical Rockabye Hamlet), but if it had actually made it to Broadway, it undoubtedly would have been eaten alive.