Kenneth Feld, the flamboyant 36-year-old Washington owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus who entered the high-stakes world of Broadway when his version of "The Three Musketeers" premiered last Sunday, may be just the ticket the musical stage is looking for.
The son of the late Irvin Feld, the music promoter who invested in the circus when no one else wanted it, Kenneth Feld took a classical drama no one else wanted and rescued it from a 1983 Stamford, Conn., tryout. Less than two years in the making, no expense spared on cost (which may exceed $4 million) or spectacle (which includes a live horse galloping down the aisle), the updated revival of the 1928 Florenz Ziegfeld classic contains everything but clowns.
Feld can boast: "I didn't have to run away with the circus, I grew up with the circus." He can declare without a hint of modesty, this child of The Greatest Show on Earth: "For two hours and 20 minutes, I guarantee you are going to go and have the greatest time in the world and forget all your troubles!" He can even explain why the opening night was suddenly pushed back a week: "We thought we could shape everything up with only a week of previews. We needed another week."
Those old enough to remember the original version may be disappointed by what author Mark Bramble calls a "musical stage 'Indiana Jones.' " Bramble takes the 1844 Alexandre Dumas tale of regal love and valor and dresses it as a 1984 action-packed drama tailored to the MTV-besotted generation -- complete with heroes and villains, lots of fencing violence (en garde!) and a happy ending (an ending!).
"The Three Musketeers" begins with Michael Praed as D'Artagnan galloping down the main aisle astride Prince, a chestnut-colored steed, and it doesn't let up. Men fight men. Women fight women. Men jump from the balcony. Men jump from stage right and stage left. At one point the entire cast fights one another. The few love-making scenes are bathed in soft-light romance guaranteed not to offend.
The most radical departure from the original production is the award-winning Rudolf Friml score. Avant-garde composer Kirk Nurock has rearranged the instrumentation and orchestra to accommodate not only 16th-century instruments -- a lute, a harpsichord, gambas, recorders and early percussion -- but also a rock guitar, electric bass and synthesizer. All this as well as the usual strings, reeds and brass found in a traditional Broadway pit.
With more than half the Broadway houses dark and a lineup on the horizon that offers little hope, nearly everyone agrees that the musical stage needs a new injection. Critics may not want Feld's circus serum, but he is not going to let them ruin his plans. "Broadway is the ultimate crap shoot," he says. "Fortunately, I am just the type to hang around the tables. I know what makes a circus work. A Broadway stage is actually smaller, you know, than a circus arena."