Theatre Review: King of Hearts

Alchemy Theatre’s production full of heart despite sticky story material

(l-r): Chelsea Lane as Madame Madeleine, Patrick Regner as Private Johnny Able, Sarah-Marie Curry as Jeunefille, and Sebastian Vitale as Genevieve (courtesy of Alchemy Theatre)

King of Hearts probably doesn’t make your top 20, or even 100, best musicals. In fact, you’re probably in rarified company if you even know it exists. But this unknown entity is here, revived by Alchemy Theatre.

The original King of Hearts musical did not have a successful Broadway run, ending after 48 performances (a fact largely pinned on the 1978 newspaper strike). While I obviously agree that print media matters, I don’t think its failure was solely due to lack of press. King of Hearts is an amalgamation of plays, an interesting hodgepodge of musical trends – here’s a dash of Candide’s naif in a wild world, an eccentric group à la Pippin, some ham-fisted free love morality like Hair. But despite some gorgeous music, the play itself never ties together as well as those shows. It valiantly tried, but its fade into obscurity makes sense.

Alchemy Theatre’s resurrection of the dead King of Hearts manages to spice up this musical mélange. It tells the tale of World War I soldier Johnny Able (Patrick Regner) trying to neutralize German bombs in a French village on the eve of armistice, only to find himself alone in a town overrun by abandoned patients from the nearby mental institution. Would it surprise you to learn that these mad folks might be the sanest ones of all? Except, maybe they’re not? Anyway, Johnny gets lost in their wonderland, learning from those discarded and forgotten by “polite” society.

Again, this is a shaggy play from the annals of time. There are overt messages – man was made for happiness, love is the most important thing of all, be great instead of nice – but they get muddled in the wartime setting. It’s too real to be absurd, yet the situation is so disturbing it’s hard to take as reality. Thinking about any ramifications of impending death and war, or how mental health is actually portrayed, is pretty distressing. This is particularly true with the romantic subplot between Johnny and patient Jeunefille, which literally means “young girl,” charmingly but childishly played by Sarah-Marie Curry. Their storyline makes you desperately wish you could forget the asylum concept. It’s better to think of it as an allegory, but the setting is too serious to get lost in that justification.

They can belt, they can blend, they can do it all.

What does help you get lost in the play is Alchemy’s absolutely phenomenal cast of performers. Every actor fully commits to their character. Sometimes I didn’t know where to look, because every facial expression and quirk was delightful. Good thing, too, since the blocking in ZACH’s Whisenhunt stage, an intimate theatre in the round, occasionally obscured the main action. Still, Johnny and the cadre of inpatients were riveting. It’s difficult to pick out performances, since everyone from the randy Madame Madeleine (Chelsea Lane) to the heartwarming mimework of Demosthenes (Christopher Saenz) sparkled with humor. The flamboyant Barber (Leslie Hethcox), who is the most obvious Seventies queer pastiche, was played with piquant poignance. His sometimes lover, the Bishop (Nicholaus Weindel), absolutely commands your attention each time he’s spotlighted, with the least problematic portrayal of insanity and the best comedic timing in an incredibly talented bunch. Johnny’s wide-eyed goober works well, complemented by Regner’s clear tenor.

Because the singing, oh the singing! Each voice was distinct, from soaring soprano to grounding baritone. The cast are all strong soloists with recognizable voices, but they manage to harmonize in purely pleasurable ways. Ensemble numbers like “Transformation/Déjà Vu,” where small groups wove musical themes around and through each other, made what could have been a mush-mouthed mess an electric triumph. The second act’s haunting soldier’s dirge, “Going Home Tomorrow,” is enough to make you weep with the sudden turn toward realities of war delivered in crystalline melodies. Accompanied with aplomb by a solo piano, played onstage by musical director Ellie Jarrett Shattles, this lovely musical experience will surprise and delight even the most dedicated show tunes aficionado.

Watching King of Hearts is a chance to see a cast with chemistry, showcasing their golden pipes. They can belt, they can blend, they can do it all. Is the play itself actually saying anything? With a cast this good, does it need to?

King of Hearts

Alchemy Theatre

Through June 16

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King of Hearts, Theatre, Alchemy Theatre, Patrick Regner, Sarah-Marie Curry, Chelsea Lane, Sebastian Vitale

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