These Paper Bullets!, which opened this week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is a mélange of Shakespearean wit, with a mix of Green Day music, the Beatles’ history, and London’s 1960s mods that is fun but flawed. Subtitled A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, this lively show offers a good time for fans of the Bard and the British Invasion, but could be better.
Many of William Shakespeare’s plays are timeless and adapt easily when transplanted into other eras. This farce takes the war of wit and smugness between Beatrice and Benedick and drops it into swinging ‘60s London and rampant Beatlemania (or in this case, Quatromania) with Bea and Ben. This version of the tale is written by Rolin Jones (Friday Night Lights, Boardwalk Empire), features songs by Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (American Idiot – the single, album and Broadway show), and is directed by Jackson Gay.
These Paper Bullets! was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre and premiered there in 2014. This West Coast debut at Geffen Playhouse, in association with Atlantic Theater Company, is a one-month warm-up before the show opens in November off-Broadway. Hopefully, they will use the time to trim a little and relax into the parts. While charming, it seems overly long and overacted (the male cast members seem to shout the Shakespearean dialog bits like an over-zealous high school production). But the basic concept, the Beatle puns, mod attire and the Armstrong music work.
Looking fab and appropriately fashion-forward, Bea (Nicole Parker) is now a designer, dreaming up stylish raincoats and garb. She hangs around with drug-addled fashion-model cousin Higgy (Ariana Venturi), clearly a meshing of Shakespeare’s character Hero and ‘60s icon Twiggy.
Ben (Justin Kirk) is still portrayed as a faithless and cynical lover, avoiding romance since his previous relationship with Bea went sour. Here, instead of being a soldier, Ben is part of the Quartos, the Beatles-like rock band besieged with screaming female fans.
The plot, attire and book are full of references to Beatles history and puns on their works. The Quatros’ albums include Rub My Bowl, A Midsummer’s Day Night, and Yous Use Me and the album covers mock the similar period Beatles’ ones. The former drummer kicked out of the band before they hit it big here is named Don Best; for the Beatles, it was Pete Best. The group honed their style in Germany, becomes “bigger than Jesus” as the John-type character states, and even play a rooftop concert ala Let It Be. Armstrong’s music even includes homages with the opening licks of I Wanna Hold Your Hand kicking off one song.
This is not a musical in the sense of characters bursting into song and dance. It is really a comedy with songs coming at appropriate times – the recording studio, a TV taping, sitting and strumming when down, etc. The songs are largely pastiche pieces, The Last Time features a solid ‘60s sound, but some – like Regretfully Yours – stand on their own in any era. The men playing the band mates sound perfect in reflecting the period (although casting Nicole Parker, who played Elphaba at one point in Wicked on Broadway in a non-singing role seems a waste even though she is well-suited to the comical Bea).
As revenge for his ousting, Don Best (Adam O’Byrne) plots to embarrass the band and prevent the wedding of Higgy and band member Claude (Claudio in the original and portrayed by Damon Daunno). In front of God, Queen and TV cameras, Claude denounces Higgy after seeing doctored photos of her with another man. This part strains modern-day credulity, since it would be hard to believe the drug-addled model was the picture of innocence.
Those who prefer their Shakespeare updated into modern language will be disappointed that some original dialog survives, but most is updated. Much Ado actually had pretty saucy and understandable language 400 plus years ago! The title is from the original language and a section Jones uses about “quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain,” a reference to scathing remarks written that can be ignored unlike real bullets.
One part that does not seem to work in the updating is turning the police of Messina into a bumbling bunch from Scotland Yard. It seems forced. (As does, the bit with the Queen at the wedding.)
With its mix of Beatles, Shakespeare and ‘60s madcap screen works like Hard Day’s Night, The Pink Panther, and The Monkees, These Paper Bullets! offers a lighthearted, but uneven evening in L.A. It helps however, to be a fan of either the original or the Beatles.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Sep. 17, 2015
Broadway World: BWW Review: Yale Rep’s THESE PAPER BULLETS Captures 1964 Nostalgia at Geffen
Backstage: #ICastIt How the Beatles Influenced Casting On “These Paper Bullets”
Photos of The Quatros and of Bea and Ben by Michael Lamont, courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse.