Among the things the Beatles share with William Shakespeare is this: Bend, twist and reshape them as you will, they’re impervious to humiliation. Set Billy Big Boy in the Wild West or Las Vegas or on Mars; he springs back untainted. Filter the Fab Four through an elevator speaker or the Berlin Philharmonic; they remain here, there and everywhere the Beatles.
Toss some Shakespeare and some Beatles into the blender and you might get These Paper Bullets! a musical smoothie I’m happy to report does no damage to either and offers some charming surprises of its own. Author Rolin Jones (Weeds, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow) and songwriter and Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong (American Idiot) have dressed the bones of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing in the Carnaby Street garb of Swinging ’60s London for an extended, rocking riff on the story of those too-much-protesting lovers Beatrice and Benedick, here renamed Ben (Justin Kirk of Modern Family) and Bea (Nicole Parker, Key And Peele). The show has opened at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, following presentations at the Geffen Playhouse and Yale Rep.
You will remember that in Much Ado, soldier Benedick and his crew return after a battle triumphantly to Messina to booze and woo. Witty bachelor Benedick resumes his nasty verbal thrusts-and-parries with Beatrice, whom he previously bedded and abandoned and who has since renounced men. In order to facilitate the marriage of lovestruck Hero and Claudio, their friends conspire to trick B&B into falling back in love — which proves not so hard to do while providing a certain amount of comedy (at which Parker, in particular, is wonderfully adept).
Jones and Armstrong have turned Bea into a mod clothes designer and Ben now fronts a wildly popular band called The Quartos, the best Beatles knockoff since The Rutles. Jones has a gift for reconstituting Shakespearean dialogue with just enough sampling of the real thing to keep us feeling both amused and smart. Even more impressive, each of Armstrong’s songs mimics an identifiable number from the Lennon/McCartney canon while ingeniously turning the songs inside out. There are “Paul Is Dead” jokes, Help! and Rubber Soul jokes — it’s all, I believe, the first Beatles pastiche.
Add to that sensational orchestrations for the gifted foursome by Tom Kitt and staging by Jackson Gay that suggests Feydeau, and you have a pretty savvy spooflé. Framed by Michael Yeargan’s witty sets, Jessica Ford’s picture perfect costumes and atmospheric, ever-shifting lighting by Paul Whitaker, the whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, but the parts positively sparkle. As Ed Sullivan reputedly quipped after the Quartos’ first appearance, jolly good shoe.