No matter how many dogs and 1940s pop songs Barbara Gaines throws at Shakespeare's bawdy comedy, she can't cover up that it's not a very good play. The plot is one of Shakespeare's most forgettable, bringing back Henry IV's lecherous drunk Sir John Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) for a few hours of screwball humor and sex puns when he tries to win the affections of two married women in Windsor. The merry Mistresses Page (Kelli Fox) and Ford (Heidi Kettenring) plot against the oaf while Ford's jealous husband (Ross Lehman) gets sucked into the madness, leading to lots of disguises and cases of mistaken identity but not much else. There's a tacked-on romance subplot involving Mistress Page's daughter (Tiffany Yvonne Cox) and three competing suitors, but it feels especially like an afterthought in Gaines's production.
Gaines's post–World War II vision of Windsor is essentially Bedford Falls from It's a Wonderful Life with English accents: a winter wonderland where people are regularly walking their adorable dogs and breaking into song. The impetus to set the play in winter is understandable for the holiday season, but the musical sequences and canine supporting cast are superficial additions that ultimately drag down the production's momentum. A little boy singing a jazz ballad to a dog is the theatrical equivalent of cute cat pictures online, guaranteed to get an aww from the audience but otherwise insubstantial. Running over two and a half hours, the piece could do well without the extra fluff, like the short doggie parade toward the end of the show. We get it: Dogs are cute. Now please finish the play.
Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost used music to give the story an old-time Hollywood feel that fit the goofy romantic comedy of the play. Gaines's Merry Wives similarly uses music to add an Andrews Sisters flair to the proceedings, particularly when Fox and Kettenring duet, but the story is a strange fit for that kind of treatment. Renditions of "Accentuate the Positive," "Hooray for Love," and "Sunny Side of the Street" are added to make the play feel more like heartfelt, family-friendly fare, but at the end of the day this is still a comedy about one man being publicly humiliated because he tries to dip his wick in two married women.
That humiliation is the redeeming factor of this production, primarily because of the strong chemistry among Fox, Kettenring and Jaeck. The two women delight in tormenting the man who has given them the kind of attention their husbands don't, making their relationships with Falstaff far more passionate than the bonds they share with their spouses. A supporting cast of Chicago mainstays like Lehman, Kevin Gudahl and James Harms does mostly competent work, but fails to breathe life into a romantic plot that's dead on arrival. It may not be era-appropriate, but there's a certain Righteous Brothers tune that would be the perfect song choice for a show that never finds that loving feeling.