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The production of the musical "The House of Martin Guerre" that opened the Canadian Stage Company's season last weekend is terrific. The design by Robert Brill suggests a French farming village out of the Middle Ages without being overly extravagant or cumbersome. The direction by David Petrarca is precise. There's a smattering of village folk dancing choreographed by Denise Clarke, but not so much as to make us take it for a Broadway village. The lighting by Kevin Lamotte is lovely. Best of all are the cast.

For those who attend the Shaw Festival, the happy surprise is Roger Honeywell. He is a big, square-bodied, red-haired young man. He's a regular at Shaw, but is usually two people away from the lead, perhaps because of his size. But my heavens, what a voice. It is a big, very big voice, clear and thrilling in songs that are meant to be clear and to reach thrilling levels. Everyone is miked so it isn't always easy to tell who has what going for him, but there's little doubt about Honeywell's power. (Did he abort opera training for acting at some point, one wonders?)

Honeywell plays the man who arrives at the tiny village of Artigat from the wars claiming to be an older, wiser, bigger, stronger, handsomer, smarter Martin Guerre. He isn't Martin Guerre. Then again, in this show, he's much better than the real Martin Guerre. The wife, Bertrande -- from whom the real Guerre ran off years ago -- thinks so. She experiences a slight glitch of hesitation, sensing something is a little fishy here. Still, the real Martin Guerre (in this show) is such a dry, unpleasant stick, nearly anyone would be an improvement. She gives the go-ahead. Welcome home, Martin Guerre.

Honeywell has done enough work at the Shaw and elsewhere to relish the role of the faux Guerre, no problems. He's a genuine actor, even if he can sing the daylights out of Leslie Arden's songs. And no less is true of Julain Molnar, who is Bertrande. She is beautiful but in a way that wouldn't be out of place in your ideal French farming village. You can see her cutting sheaves of wheat without worrying she might chip a nail. She has a lovely strong voice. In fact, a feature of this performance is that all the principals -- this includes Kevin Gudahl as the semi-bad guy and Hollis Resnik as Bertrande's mother -- have these big aggressive voices. They all attack Arden's songs as if they're turnips and they want blood. The audience goes for it.

The Martin Guerre story comes down to us from the 1500s in official records. The Guerre pretender, whose real name was Arnaud de Tihl, was put on trial for fooling everyone, and was hanged. Bertrande, who could have been hanged with him, barely escaped. The story invites contemporary ruminations -- books, movie, two theatrical musicals -- on the nature of identity, the self, knotty philosophical problems, and fingerprints. The authorities were in a real quandary as to the man's real identity because all they had to go on was the testimony of those for and those against the accused, roughly half and half in the village. Fingerprints would have settled it centuries later, but what finally did it was the sudden appearance of the real Guerre, also back from the wars and missing a leg. That finished De Tihl, of course.

Leslie Arden and her co-writer, Anna Theresa Cascio, have nudged the story in a politically correct direction. Their notion, with the blessings of hindsight, is that the time is coming when women will be protected from forced marriages. In the future, except in Louisiana, they won't have to look forward to living out lives in cold, loveless, desiccated marriages. The future is first alluded to in the song "The World Is Changing," sung at a hopeful point by Arnaud, and then, when things go bad, by Bertrande in specific allusion to a woman's lot. It ends the show. This is fine, and means that looking back into the tiny village of Artigat one sees signs of feminism.

The whole mess came about because the two families, the Guerres and Bertrande's Rols family, figured they'd be stronger and better off if they conglomerated by marrying Bertrande and Martin. In another time it would be praised as a kind of Wall Street coup. But these were just kids, about the ages of Romeo and Juliet. He's maybe 14, and can't stand the idea of being married to her, for whatever reason we don't know. (The show is politically correct but not gender-diverse.) They stayed married into their 20s, and after years of not trying he fathers a child and then runs off.

Bertrande struggles on with child -- not easy in a villagelocked into the agricultural and social routines of the 1550s. Years go by, maybe eight, and Guerre the pretender shows up. He is a farming whiz, a warm father, a gentle husband, and good at real estate. He's so successful that Uncle Pierre suffers from envy, and this breaks out into doubts about Guerre's real identity. And we go from there.

The program indicates we cover about 22 years, but in performance and despite chronological clues strewn in our path it seems more like several years. The show has to cover a lot of ground. The songs are closely tied to the story; they are embedded in the narrative. Even so there is a formatted character to the music. Not song by song, but the general pattern may owe too much to the geriatric musical show form.

You have your big muscular song, your little comic number, your feeling song. Predictability sets in way too soon. What actually frees it from an enervating pattern are the musical performances. The show began in Chicago's Goodman Theatre last year, but it is hard to imagine a performance a whole lot better than this one. Honeywell, Molnar, Gudahl, Resnik and company are a thorough treat.

The House of Martin Guerre
Rating: ****
Musical based on 16th century story, music and lyrics by Leslie Arden, book by Arden and Anna Theresa Cascio. Directed for the Canadian Stage Company by David Petrarca, featuring Roger Honeywell as Martin Guerre, Julain Molnar as his wife, Bertrande, Kevin Gudahl as Pierre Guerre, a rival, and others. Performances Monday through Saturday, through Oct. 25, in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front St. East, Toronto; (416) 368-3110 or Ticketmaster, (416) 872-1111.

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