From time to time, Goodspeed Musicals comes to the rescue of underdog musicals, as it’s doing twofold with a mainstage “King of Hearts” (a 1978 Broadway failure) and a second-stage development production of a new version of Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein’s “The Baker’s Wife” (it closed out of town in 1976), both of which are set in France. Such humane gestures give Goodspeed a wider range of options from which to program. But although there’s always hope, these revivals seldom, if ever, reveal a lost jewel. With “King of Hearts,” the coy whimsy of its book and characters, most of them inmates of an insane asylum, inevitably limits its appeal.
Based on the 1966 Philippe de Broca anti-war movie starring Alan Bates, which had a cult following, the musical was first seen at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse in 1977. With a book by Steve Tesich and directed by A.J. Antoon, it seemed to have potential but needed a lot of work and a new leading man. It arrived on Broadway a year later with a new lead, a new book by Joseph Stein and new director-choreographer Ron Field. It ran for six previews and 48 perfs.
For its “King of Hearts” revival, Goodspeed has reverted to the script by the late Tesich. Composer Peter Link and lyricist Jacob Brackman are still with us, and their score this time around differs slightly from Westport and Broadway. The music, though never strikingly original, has its charms, including French influences and hints of Southern country (Johnny, the musical’s central character, is an American private from Kentucky who’s in France on the last day of WWI).
But the musical’s primary problem is all those crazies, the sole remaining inhabitants of a tiny French town the Germans plan to obliterate just before the war ends at midnight. One thinks he’s a horse, another a sheep; another is a deaf-mute mime. The female romantic lead, Jeunefille (Vanessa Lemonides), is a virginal apprentice whore in ballerina costume who teeters en pointe most of the time. There’s a madame, a transvestite and more than one gay and/or bisexual person. No wonder Johnny (Joe Farrell), who volunteers to save the town and ends up being crowned the crazies’ King of Hearts, is bamboozled by them.
The musical’s anti-war message comes and goes, though presumably we’re meant to believe it’s far saner to live in a madhouse than in the utterly insane outside world. Certainly “King of Hearts” is one of the few musicals that comes to an end with six corpses on the ground and the hero rushing into the madhouse to be with the heroine.
In the demanding leading role, Farrell is a natural country-boy charmer, though his assumed Kentucky accent gets in the way of verbal clarity and at times he’s drowned out by the seven-piece pit band. The rest of the cast hurls itself into the mad proceedings, with lively turns by Gabor Morea as a campy barber, Melissa Hart as a lusty madame, Casper Roos and Pamela Burrell as a duke and duchess, Robert Aronson as a bishop, Joe Vincent as a ladies’ man named Genevieve (his mother was a woman, so why shouldn’t he have a woman’s name?), Lemonides (though her singing is shrill) and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the mute.
But a full evening of cute madness is hard to take, and though director Gabriel Barre has kept things moving at a merry clip, “King of Hearts” wears out its welcome. Also, there’s little evidence of the “delicacy” the creators claim for their show. The most effective scene is the simplest, and it involves none of the asylum inmates. It’s a classic example of anti-war co-existence in which four American soldiers begin to sing of the joy of “Going Home Tomorrow” and are joined by four German soldiers at the rear of the stage, singing the same lyrics in German. The song builds as all eight voices join in harmony.
Peggy Hickey’s choreography is bouncy in a generalized way. James Youmans’ slightly skewed set is a bit busy for the small stage, though the stage-filling wrought-iron fence and gate of the asylum is most effective. Pamela Scofield’s grab-bag costumes are sometimes overbusy.