REVIEWS: King of Hearts

King of Hearts Review December 12th, 1999
Reviewed by Martin Denton

King of Hearts feels like a turning point for Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight: this is the fifth of Mr. Miller’s staged concert productions of very obscure musicals and it’s far and away the best. This is due in large part to a talented cast who, under the direction of the show’s composer Peter Link, put over the songs and book with assurance and vitality. But there’s something else at play here, which has to do with the work itself. While Dearest Enemy, By the Beautiful Sea, Let It Ride! and So Long, 174th Street (the previous Musicals Tonight musicals) amounted to entertaining footnotes from the history of American musical comedy, King of Hearts is clearly something more: this time around, we’re witnessing a genuine rediscovery! King of Hearts may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a fine work that has been neglected too long. With its timeless story and thoroughly contemporary score King of Hearts deserves to be seen by a large audience. Mr. Miller is to be congratulated for recognizing this state of affairs, and for doing something about it.

King of Hearts takes place in 1918 in a small village in France; it’s the very last day of World War I, and although the soldiers on both sides of the conflict are ready to return home, they still have one more day’s work to put in. But the inmates of nearby Ste. Anne’s asylum don’t know anything of the war or bombs, and when they discover that the town has been emptied of its regular inhabitants, they take it over for themselves.

Into this pixilated place comes Private Johnny Able, a dreamy American soldier who has volunteered to defuse the bomb in order to win a bit of glory for himself. Johnny is surprised to find the asylum’s residents installed in a town he thought had been evacuated; he’s even more surprised when they proclaim him the King of Hearts and ask him to be their ruler. Johnny is quickly charmed by the essential goodness and innocence of the people of Ste. Anne’s, in particular the lovely young Jeunefille, with whom he immediately falls in love.

Johnny decides to become the King of Hearts, and spends a strange but happy day with his new-found subjects. Before the day is over, however, reality intercedes in the form of his Army Lieutenant, some German soldiers, and the bomb, set to go off at midnight and destroy everyone in the town. Johnny, feeling responsible for his "people," must figure out how to save them from the explosion. And he also must decide whether to rejoin the real world outside Ste. Anne’s, or to remain in a community he has come to love.

It’s a familiar fairy tale in its way; very much a blend of The Madwoman of Chaillot and Lost Horizon. From Lost Horizon comes the time-tested story of a man drawn to a strange and wonderful place, one that requires him to give up everything in order to find perfect happiness. From Madwoman comes King of Hearts’ whimsical sensibility, which dares to ask who the crazy people in life really are: the supposedly normal folk who kill each other as a matter of course, or the blissfully odd ones who can’t even conceive of the idea of harming another human being.

To this mix, Mr. Link and his collaborators Jacob Brackman (lyrics) and the late Steve Tesich (book adds some heaping doses of (now old-fashioned) 1960s liberalism). King of Hearts is unashamedly anti-war and just as brashly pro-love (all kinds, in fact: a pair of homosexuals is celebrated along with all the other "deviants" of the asylum). The authors clearly love their eclectic and eccentric creations: when the denizens of Ste. Anne’s sing about what’s important to them, in songs like "Nothing, Only Love" and "Now We Need to Cry" and "A Day In Our Life," we are convinced that their outlook on life is the correct one.

Elsewhere in Mr. Link’s lovely score, we learn more about the so-called sane people: Johnny’s anthem "Close Upon the Hour" is particularly rousing; the quiet chorale "Going Home Tomorrow," sung by soldiers on both sides of the war, is also especially moving.

All seventeen members of the cast do fine work here. Michael Magee sings the role of Johnny beautifully (although his acting is a bit stiff; but remember, he’s still on book in this staged concert); Kerry Butler is delightful as his leading lady Jeunefille. Shaelynn Parker proves indomitable as the worldly (and world-weary) courtesan Madeleine, and T. Doyle Leverett is lovably, bombastically childlike as Jeunefille’s adopted father Genevieve. Teri Gibson also makes a strong impression as the slyly regal Duchess of Diamonds, who, if she doesn’t exactly see the world through rose colored glasses, at least filters out its least rosy parts.

Gordon Joseph Weiss plays Demosthenes, a clown-like mute who, as the discoverer of King of Hearts Johnny, is catalyst for all of the wondrous events that befall him. Mr. Weiss created this role in the original production of King of Hearts and he is brilliant in it; what a privilege to witness a performance this extraordinary!

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather see a King of Hearts become Broadway’s next surprise hit that a game old chestnut like Kiss Me, Kate hat has already had its day. That’s not likely to happen, though; at least we have this (too brief) Musicals Tonight engagement to satisfy our appetite for truly interesting and inspiring musical theatre. Go see King of Hearts: it’s really rather special.

King of Hearts
Back Stage January 14th, 2000
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Directed by composer Peter Link as a staged reading with costumes, scenery, and props, the cast made the most of its opportunities in this musicalization of King of Hearts, a version other than the one that came to Broadway in 1978. Unfortunately, this could not disguise its weakness: for a story in which "nice" is a dirty word, King of Hearts is too nice.

The story concerns a soldier in France on the last day of World War I sent on a mission to defuse German bombs. He discovers that the inmates of the insane asylum of Ste. Anne’s know more about how to live that do the people on the outside. Ultimately, he must decide to go home or join them. The previously unused book by the late Steve Tesich is amusing and charming, but never witty. Jacob Brackman’s lyrics are serviceable without being distinguished. Link’s music is pleasant in a variety of styles without capturing the 1918 period or without a big memorable number.

The cast was wholly delightful. As the hero (changed here from a Scot in the film to an American from Kentucky), Michael Magee was both charming and guileless. Shaelynn Parker as the village madame wrapped her big voice around such lilting songs as "Down at Madelineine’s." Kerry Butler as Jeunefille who wants to dance, and T. Doyle Leverett as her surrogate father, were winsome. Gordon Joseph Weiss from the original production recreated his mute Demosthenes with delightful pantomime.

Other actors who made their characters notable included Gabor Morea as the Barber and Jimmy Bennet as the Bishop. Musical director Robert Lamont did an expert job particularly with the a cappella number for the soldiers, "Going Home Tomorrow." The minimal settings by Gwen Adler were just enough to set the scenes.

Trench warfare - King of Hearts
Off-Off Broadway January, 2000
Reviewed by Doug DeVita

Musicals Tonight, with inventive, well-cast concert staging of old, nearly forgotten musicals, had 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 the 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 around 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 the 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-honed 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 70’s pop inspirational kitsch.

Link directed the evening as if blinded by a 20-year obsession with his own work, without any sense of the 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 WW 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.

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