It sounded like such a great idea: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy/war of wits “Much Ado About Nothing” set in swinging 1960s London with new songs by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.
Alas, “These Paper Bullets!“ is such a meandering mess that it is hard to believe that Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company agreed to produce it in the first place, or that it has already been staged at two prominent regional theaters.
The transformations from “Much Ado” are clever: The rambunctious soldiers are now members of the popular rock band the Quartos (modeled on the Beatles), the estate of Messina is a posh hotel and the villainous Don John was kicked out of the band and now seeks revenge.
When Hero (here named Higgy) is accused of adultery, tabloid-style photos are disbursed throughout the theater. And instead of a convoluted identity switch at the end, Claudio (here Claude) begs his beloved for forgiveness by singing a ballad.
The main problem lies in Rolin Jones’ labored, overlong script, which uneasily combines lines from the original text with colloquial language. It would have been better to either perform “Much Ado” as is or use all-new dialogue.
Jackson Gay’s direction is not so great. The cast (led by Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker) tries too hard to win laughs with broad, frantic antics, and visually the production is ugly and cluttered.
Armstrong’s songs, which evoke early Beatles pop, are pleasant, but there are only a few of them and they do not advance the storytelling. Still, it’s heartening to see him stay involved in the theater after working on the Green Day jukebox musical “American Idiot.” Could he write an original musical next?