Four days before opening night of “The Three Musketeers,” the most ambitious collaboration Buffalo theaters have produced in recent memory, the pressure is starting to seem real.
Inside Shea’s 710 Theatre, Kenneth Shaw’s set gleams like a Renaissance jungle gym under the lighting design of Chris Cavanagh, who stands behind a control panel running through sound cues suggestive of sword fights and grand adventures.
One by one, the musketeers make their way through the Sunday morning drizzle in hoodies and sweats to the back door of the theater: There’s Athos (Chris Avery), tall and lithe and ready to fight; Porthos (Steve Copps), brash and bumbling; Aramis (Anthony Alcocer), a womanizer with big dreams; and D’Artagnan (Patrick Cameron), a young newcomer with delusions of grandeur he hopes to make real.
With less than a week before opening, plenty of work remains: Transitions need to be tightened, sword fights modified, costumes tweaked and dialogue sharpened.
Much is riding on this collaboration two years in the making, the collective effort of MusicalFare Theatre, the Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, Road Less Traveled Productions and Shea's Performing Arts Center.
Not only are the resources and reputations of five of Buffalo’s best-known theater companies on the line, but so is the ability of the city’s theater scene to concentrate its efforts into one extraordinary production. If it succeeds, Buffalo could gain national attention for the quality of its theater scene, not just its volume.
For Kelly, known for his keen and playful productions of adventure stories, camp classics and musical chestnuts, the task at hand comes down to one word: adventure.
“This is not the Royal Shakespeare Company presents the Three Musketeers,” Kelly said during an interview in the theater’s lobby. “This is like an action-adventure on stage. This is what it needs to feel like. So it has much more to do with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ than the BBC.”
The musketeers, who have been largely shielded from the daily stresses and concerns of the production, wholeheartedly agree.
“We’re the lucky ones,” said Alcocer. “We get to play make-believe and heroes and swords and Jedi knights and Princess Toadstool and all that stuff, we get to do it with our friends every day. And so that pressure that we were talking about? I don’t feel it.”
The biggest challenges of the production, which follows a cinematic script by Linda Alper, comes in the unrelenting series of sword fights and other battles that punctuate the plot.
“To me, it feels like doing one of those big musicals, but the fights are the production numbers,” Kelly said. Add to this the fact that Cameron had limited sword-fighting experience before this production and it’s clear this cast — and veteran fight director Steve Vaughan — had their work cut out for them.
Cameron, who shoulders much of the play’s dramatic weight and handles what Kelly called a “ridiculous” amount of sword fighting, has an almost athletic drive to master both the physical and emotional challenges of the role.
“Not only is the production itself a huge undertaking,” Cameron said, “but the show itself is just extremely complicated. There’s so many moving pieces and parts and the characters are so well-known and complex, and we’re trying to shove so much life and love into them.”
But no matter the weight of the subject at hand — or the expectations, for that matter — Kelly’s productions tend to brim with a sense of spontaneity and fun bred of genuine camaraderie. Alcocer described the musketeers as “a group of bros, having a bromance.”
“When you’re doing a Chris Kelly joint, there is no cap on how much fun is being had at any given time,” said Alcocer, who marks his tenth Chris Kelly joint with this production. “There’s no limit to how many pieces of improv or spontaneity get thrown against the wall to see what sticks.”
Copps concurred, saying that the camaraderie the cast has achieved “makes it easy to create in the environment that we’re given.”
Because of the fast pace of the show and the need to keep the action moving during scene changes — and also because Kelly rarely leaves a theatrical opportunity unused — the action will not be confined to the stage.
“Oh, there’s running through the aisles,” Kelly said, with a smirk.
Even during a Sunday morning interview with the participants shaking off sleep, the chemistry among the musketeers is evident. They speak like true friends engaged in meaningful work, and seem to own the “all for one, one for all” ethos of the story and the production.
“We hold ourselves accountable and it just very, very romantically ties into the play,” Alcocer said. “We are the Musketeers, the four of us, the five of us… We’ve got to be there for each other all the time.”
"The Three Musketeers" opens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 in Shea's 710 Main St. and runs through Nov. 18. Tickets are $20 to $44. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.