Review: Farinelli and the King

This gentle play with music is essentially a vehicle for two of the world’s greatest talents, actor Mark Rylance and operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, both the very best at what they do, and at the peak of their talents. Rylance stars as King Philippe V of Spain, at a point in his life where he is plagued with what we would today call mental illness, some mix of depression and delusion.

Enter Farinelli (born as Carlo Broschi, played by Sam Crane and sung by Davies), brought in by Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). Farinelli sings, and the king’s spirit significantly lifts. Call it music therapy, centuries before the fact.

Rylance is of course the main draw here, and he is unsurprisingly magnificent. Some people call him mannered, but I think the way in which he applies his undeniable mannerisms is masterful and deeply intelligent. It is to me what great acting should be, the actor’s own personality and / or persona applied with precise thought and detail – and deep emotion and vulnerability – to the given circumstances of the piece.

Davies singing, however, is the soul of this love letter to the power of music, and he is every bit as terrific. He may be physically incapable of replicating Farinelli’s unearthly castrato voice, but he is without a doubt as subtle and feeling a musical interpreter as the man he plays. He sings Handel almost exclusively here, and I would have liked to have heard more by Porpora (Farinelli’s mentor, who gets the only non-Handel aria here), or even better composers like Hasse or Vinci, who are undeservedly forgotten today, but very important at the time. Still, there is no denying that Davies caressing Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia, ch’io pianga” is the perfect way to close the evening.

John Dove’s marvelous staging, set among Jonathan Fensom’s sumptuous set and costumes, rises to the level of his collaborators. I have a minor quibble with the script itself, which falters toward the end with an entirely non-historical love triangle between the two titular characters and the queen. It rings false, and breaks the gentle spell that the show casts until that point. It’s really unnecessary. It also contributes to the general error in the portrayal of Isabella Farnese, a far more formidable figure than suggested by the sentimental way the role is written. Not a big problem, though. A real pleasure of a show, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Children

This drama begins after a tragedy, since the worst has already happened – a Fukushima-level or worse nuclear plant disaster in a coastal English town. The play’s story largely follows a trio of people dealing with the aftermath. Though not without humor, The Children is heavy going, but intelligent and humane enough to reward the effort.

Given the nature of the disaster, it is no coincidence that all three characters are nuclear engineers. It is also thematically important to the play that they are all retired scientists. Married couple Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), who worked at the plant, are visited by old friend Rose (Francesca Annis). Rose has some highly personal issues to settle with both of them before she moves on to a larger issue later in the play (which I won’t spoil).

This quietly naturalistic three-hander is inevitably all about the acting, and it is truly superior. Annis brings to Rose a fading sensuality – she is quite self-conscious that the sexuality which played a big part in her life is on the wane. Cook is given a rogue of a man to portray, but anchors all the performance to Robin’s surprisingly ethical core (Sidebar: there was a significant portion of the play that felt a bit, well, anthropological to me, since the way straight people deal with sex roles has always been fundamentally strange to me).

Hazel is the character on whom the plot and theme both hinge – she has the biggest arc – Deborah Findley gives great nuance to a woman who is simultaneously rigorously practical and helplessly selfish. James Macdonald’s direction is so seamless that not a single moment seems writerly or forced, and as easy as that may sound on paper, I can tell you it’s devilishly difficult. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: SpongeBob SquarePants

I’m aware of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon on which this musical is based, but not exactly familiar with it. I’ve gotten a good giggle or two watching a few minutes of this gleefully surreal show, but before seeing this adaptation, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single character outside of the titular lead. So there are a fair number of inside jokes here that went right over my head. That said, I found this relentlessly silly and colorful show irresistibly enjoyable.

In SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the whole of Bikini Bottom, our hero’s beloved home town, is endangered by a nearby volcano on the verge of erupting. SpongeBob and his intrepid friends fight daunting odds to save the day.

I knew this would be something special when I found out that Tina Landau was directing. Landau is one of a small number of directors who have successfully applied an avant-garde background to commercial theatre work. Puppets, projections and stage tricks are used liberally but judiciously, and so are breathtakingly simple staging strategies that communicate complex moments. The end result is a fun-house ride of a show that celebrates optimism and imagination.

The entire cast works tirelessly, none more so than SpongeBob himself, Ethan Slater. Slater is compact, flexible and well-built, so much so that a friend of mine has taken to calling him SpongeBob HotPants. He also has boundless energy and cheer, which suits the role to a T. Also magnificent is Gavin Lee as SpongeBob’s sourpuss coworker Squidward, especially when tapping the living daylights out of Christopher Gatelli’s kinetic choreography for “I’m Not A Loser.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.