Fans of the swashbuckling Anthony Hope novel or the memorable 1937 Selznick film classic are likely to be disappointed with this latest adaptation. The 1893 novel, as staged at the Paper Mill, has become a broad and gaudy comic farce, substituting slapstick humor for absorbing romantic adventure.
The tale, which has survived a half-dozen screen versions and several spinoffs, plus a 1963 tuner that closed before reaching Broadway, revolves around a minor British attache who, due to a long-ago family indiscretion, bears an uncanny resemblance to the crown prince of a mythical European kingdom. When the future king is drugged into a deep sleep with tainted brandy and kidnapped by an ambitious brother, the innocent look-alike is persuaded to masquerade as the future monarch for the coronation.
Jonathan Wade is the debonair, red-headed hero, who exhaustingly is required to double as his royal counterpart by bounding out the door in one guise and returning promptly in another.
The villains, once written and portrayed as devious scoundrels, have become outrageously foolish comic-book meanies. Black Michael (Michael James Reed), the ruthless seeker of the throne, scowls, mugs and cracks a whip like Lash LaRue.
Once described as “a witty and dashing paragon of all devils,” henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Tito Enriquez) is ludicrously reduced to being the recipient of pie-in-the-face slapstick humor. His face is smeared with Limburger cheese, followed by an eggnog bath, as he duels with an opponent armed with a lengthy hunk of provolone.
Little laughter greets the action. Director Robert Johanson has chosen high camp in place of romance, suspense and high adventure. He does, however, move the farcical charade with crackerjack pace. When one winsome lass addresses the aggressive villian as “Mediocrity,” instead of “Excellency,” she sums up the Peter Manes script.
Bland love scenes and clumsy fight sequences are accented by the rhapsodic themes of Franz Liszt.
The acting is florid. A small cast doubles in roles, making swift costume changes, and the garb is technicolor grand. The production is a lavish one. From ornate boudoirs and taverns to dark dungeons and castle parapets, the stage drips with icons, chandeliers, candelabras and burgundy drapes. It’s a design fit for a king, inhabited by a court full of jesters.
For the record, Alfred Drake, Chita Rivera and Anne Rogers appeared in a 1963 San Francisco Civic Light opera presentation, “Zenda,” with music by Vernon Duke. Silent film versions starred James K. Hackett (1913), Harry Ainley (U.K., 1915) and Lewis Stone (1922).
The most popular version was directed by John Cromwell in 1937, starring Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Madeline Carroll, Raymond Massey and Mary Astor.