Only a Kingdom,” which chronicles the romance between the future Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, is neither the worst nor the most pompous musical ever realized, but it comes awfully close to claiming both crowns. This love story ought to have made fine grist for the musical mill, given its fairy-tale qualities and bittersweet conclusion, but Judith Shubow Steir’s tepid, lumbering effort frequently talks down to its audience and occasionally even offends. Prospects for Broadway, or even other regional houses, seem bleak.
Steir has not only penned this show’s music and lyrics, but also its book. As a result, audiences must stomach Steir’s ersatz Andrew Lloyd Webber score (complete with soaring lines), insipid lyrics (“This fancy can’t stay/I must toss it away”) and uninvolving book, in which even the most prosaic details of the affair are explicated.
In a program note, Steir writes that she was inspired by such questions as “Why would a king make such a sacrifice?” “What is the real story?” “What is the truth of these people as human beings?” Yet this tuner never answers those questions. Instead, it dully retells a familiar tale and flattens complex individuals into caricatures.
But when she starts twisting some of history’s grimmer realities (such as Edward’s suspiciously fascistic political leanings), the fatuous becomes objectionable. Ultimately, Steir sees the Man Who Wouldn’t Be King as a careworn , sympathetic character, rather than a selfish, manipulative figure who put folly before duty.
Director Scott Schwartz’s leaden production doesn’t help. The cast practically stumbles on and off the stage, and Schwartz should have found a more elegant way to handle the framing device that finds society matron Elsa Maxwell (a miscast Mary Pat Gleason) explaining to some stock party guests — and the audience — the particulars of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s early days together. The romance is communicated via a series of stylized flashbacks, with Maxwell commenting on the action.
Daniel Stewart’s stilted choreography is very much in keeping with the rest of the show, as is James Joy’s scenic design, a symphony of gray metal bars and sliding panels. Only Diana Eden’s costumes make a favorable impression, especially the smart designs worn by Wallis.
The orchestra under James Vukovich sounds tinny, and the singing, on the opening weekend, was off-key. As for the show’s stars — Stan Chandler as Edward and Kaitlin Hopkins as Mrs. Simpson — they couldn’t be more different.
Chandler looks astonishingly like the present Prince of Wales, albeit with blond hair, and acts like him, too, managing scarcely a graceful moment on stage. Moreover, the actor sings with uncommon shrillness and possesses an at-best wan stage presence.
On the other hand, Hopkins is this show’s only ray of light. A beautiful, charismatic thesp with a respectable voice, she actually makes one understand what the Prince saw in Wallis.
Unfortunately, even her fine star turn cannot salvage this misbegotten musical.