Musicals Tonight!, with inventive, well-cast concert stagings of old, nearly forgotten musicals, has been steadily building a terrific reputation by giving shining new life to less-than-stellar material. But their latest offering, the musical King of Hearts, was a disappointment, not only in choice of musical, but also in its production, which fell far below the accustomed high standard now expected of Musicals Tonight!
One of the more spectacular flops of the 1978 - 1979 theatre season, the musical King of Hearts is based on the '60s French cult film of the same name and deals with the premise that the insane are actually far more happy than the so-called sane people who run the world. Set on the eve of the end of World War I, an American soldier is sent to defuse a bomb planted by the Germans in a small French town believed to be deserted. But the inmates of the local lunatic asylum have been left behind, free to roam the town. The soldier becomes intimately involved in their world, and after defusing the bomb (a curious non-event) decides to join them back at the asylum.
Musicals about the charms of insanity never seem to lose their appeal to the creators of musicals, who never seem to learn that they just don't work. King of Hearts is an especially weak example, the "meeskite" child of Anyone Can Whistle and Dear World, two other flops that dealt with the dubious charms of the lunatic. But at least those shows, whatever their other fatal flaws, had brilliant scores (by Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, respectively). Peter Link's score, shoe-horned uncomfortably into Steve Tesich's cloying book, is almost completely devoid of a memorable melody, and, together with Jacob Brackman's faux-naif lyrics, rarely rises above the humdrum repetitiveness of the worst of '70s pop inspirational kitsch.
Link directed the evening as if blinded by a 20-year obsession with his own work, without any sense of period, tension, or Gallic style. The physical production was downright embarrassing - a series of amateurishly painted signs pinned to the blacks served as a set, "Old Navy"-style cargo pants and "Henley Tees" served as WWI soldiers' uniforms, and the lighting was dark and murky.
Under Robert Lamont's astute musical direction, the vocally gifted cast gave it their all, performing with an infectious energy and consummate professionalism that, for an indiscriminate audience, might almost have passed for the real thing. But even professionals can only do so much with their talent ; in the end they were exposed by their own gleaming lights piercing through the gossamer-thin material.
If this production had been performed by an amateur group in a church basement in Queens, it might have been possible to take it for what it was. But with a cast and production team of the caliber involved, combined with Musicals Tonight!'s previous accomplishments, this production can only be regarded as a (hopefully) temporary lapse of sanity to be forgiven in the hopes of better things to come.
(Featuring Jimmy Bennet, Kerry Butler, Barrett Foa, Teri Gibson, Samantha Heller, Michael Hunsaker, T. Doyle Leverett, Michael Magee, Rose McGuire, Tracey Moore, Gabor Morea, Shaelynn Parker, Christopher Regan, Tom Reidy, Julia Wade, Michael Kevin Walsh, and Gordon Joseph Weiss. Lighting/sound by Lita Riddock; set design by Gwen Adler; costumes uncredited.)
Book: 0 Music: 0 Lyrics: 0
Musical Direction: 2
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita