‘King’ is a sweet wink at war

April 26, 2005.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

From the moment German soldiers bounce on stage like Keystone Kops, the tone of “King of Hearts” emerges with a wink and a tweak. These comic foils pose a danger only to themselves. They amuse and play their part in what becomes a tongue-in-cheek cabaret set during the final day of World War I.

Theatre Latté Da and Interact Theatre teamed to produce this sweet, odd little musical at the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis. Its quirky denizens entertain effortlessly; director Peter Rothstein’s stage tableaux beautifully balance the jumble of bodies. A colorful unity of life swirls in John Clark Donahue’s multi-dimensional and beautifully real set, Kathy Kohl’s brilliant costumes and Jenny DeGolier’s lights. And Denise Prosek, as usual, guides her lovely mix of musicians with elegant precision.

For all this effort, though, “King of Hearts” struggles to stay in our hearts as a transformational piece of theater. Loose plotting, only sporadic tension and a surrealism that is both beauty and bane make it comfortable to treat the piece as light entertainment.

Based on the 1966 film, Steve Teisch’s book tells of an American soldier sent to a French village to investigate sketchy reports that the town has been mined by retreating Germans. When he arrives, the town has been abandoned but for the inmates of an insane asylum walking the streets. His interaction with them provides the humor, a load of double entendre built on the inmates’ misapprehensions of the outside world.

Teisch plumbs that confusion with a vaudevillian flair and composer Peter Link’s ensemble numbers ring with personality. Rothstein has captured lightning in a bottle with these performers as they radiate discovery, wonder and glee. David Roberts, Josette Antomarchi, Tod Petersen, and Joe Leary burst with color and soul. Eriq Nelson plays both German and American commanders, a nice duality that forces us to consider the universality of war. Billy Tomaszewski, a sort of onstage conductor, shines with remarkable presence – a natural performer full of heart and confidence.

Sadly, an underwritten plot stalls out rather quickly and we are left with not much more than a cabaret, which simply doesn’t have the heft to sustain a full evening. Principally, the American soldier has no realistic journey. Joel Listman has a fine singing voice but never commands the stage with a charisma that might breathe life into this cartoon character. Too, there is no gritty edge. The German bumblers charm, but pose no threat against which life might be measured. “War is bad. Bombs can hurt you,” the soldier admonishes with not much conviction or context . The soldier’s love interest with one of the inmates, played with little definitive personality by Stacey Lindell, never catches fire, either.

As a confection, this show is nearly perfect. As a lasting message, it too quickly is forgotten.

King of Hearts What: Book by Steve Tesich. Lyrics by Jacob Brackman, music by Peter Link. Directed by Peter Rothstein. Music direction by Denise Prosek. Produced by Theatre Latté Da and Interact Theatre. When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Additional show, May 9. Through May 22. Where: Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Av. S., Minneapolis. Review: A sweet confection, very entertaining. But not much of a play. Tickets: $15 to $25. 612-343-3390 or www.latteda.org

Sweet trumps cynical in ‘King of Hearts’

April 25, 2005.By Christy DeSmith, Pioneer Press.

“King of Hearts” is the most enchanting show I’ve seen all year. In the artistic climate we live in—a detached one that is often disdainful of all things overtly sentimental — “King of Hearts is unabashedly precious. Lots of smooching and hugging goes on. But actors get away with it.

For this production, set on the last day of World War I in a French mental asylum, Theatre Latté Da teamed with Interact Center, a troupe of performers with physical and mental challenges, to create an alternate universe in which we can’t tell who’s crazy and who’s sane. The result is something magical, something with the power to disarm an ugly inner cynic. Before long, my head swelled with warm fuzzies, and I was choked up by the sappy songs.

The magic of “King of Hearts” lives in its contrasting images and ideas – war vs. love, sanity vs. acceptance – painted by director Peter Rothstein and company, with a special hats-off to costume designer Kathy Kohl, whose costumes paint magnificently divergent imagery.

When we first meet the “crazies,” the asylum inhabitants, they’re locked behind an iron gate. Clad in clinical white gowns, they crawl, they amble; a few wrap their fingers around the gate’s bars and stare dreamily at the outside world. It’s a pitiable but gorgeous picture.

Soon, a hapless, corn-fed American soldier named Johnny (Joel Liestman) ducks into the asylum, out of the way of some German soldiers (played by Eriq Nelson and, with great comic effect, a trio of mustachioed Interact performers who have Down syndrome: Eric Wheeler, Matt Dahlstrom and David Bauman).

“There are two things in this world that scare me: bombs and crazy people,” says Johnny who, upon realizing he’s surrounded by the latter, flees – but not without unhitching the gate and leaving crazies thinking he’s their king. In celebration, the freed inmates inject their lily-white madhouse with Technicolor. They deck out in tulle and lush velvet. They festoon their village in streamers and crepe. They sing a subdued “la-la” while the orchestra overlays bells, piano and hooky violin.

What I loved most about the production is how it honors “disabilities” rather than masks them. The performers with Down syndrome, for example, stomp and bumble per their own comic timing. A deaf performer (Billy Tomaszewski) sings a pretty song in American Sign Language.

Sure, there are imperfections: Songs go flat; performers smile a few seconds late. But in this world, where “you stack the deck in your favor – you make up your own logic,” says a pretty, idealistic inmate played by ballerina-esque Stacey Lindell. The booboos are forgivable. In fact, they’re only more endearing. It’s too generous and loving a place to feel anything but wonder and glee.


What: “King of Hearts,” directed by Peter Rothstein for Theatre Latté Da and Interact Center

When: Through May 22

Where: Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.

Tickets: $15-$25; 612-343-3390; www.latteda.org

HOT tickets 04.20.05 – 04.26.05

April 20, 2005.By Brian Kaller, Pulse of the Twin Cities.

One of the only anti-war movies that is so gentle and funny, the 1966 play and movie “King of Hearts” is more relevant than ever and desperately in need of a revival. Thankfully, Theater Latte Da and Interact Theatre will present the area premiere of this rarely-seen classic at the Loring Playhouse from April 23 to May 22. The play begins in the final days of World War I, as a young soldier is sent to defuse the bombs in a supposedly abandoned French village—only to find that the inmates of a local insane asylum have happily taken over the town. As he tries to follow his ridiculous orders in a deranged war, the insane begin to seem like the most appealing and rational people around. Previews at 8 p.m. Apr. 21 & 22; premiere 8 p.m. Apr. 23. Through May 22. 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. $15 - $25. 1633 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. 612-343-3390 or www.latteda.org.

Ring of the hearts

April 17, 2005.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Director Peter Rothstein, a stickler for detail, lately has grown to appreciate the zest of spontaneity. Rothstein had called his cast together onto the Loring Playhouse stage before a recent rehearsal for “King of Hearts,” which Theatre Latté Da and Interact Theatre open Saturday night. Before they could form a meditative circle, Interact performer David Bauman grabbed Rothstein in a hug and would not let go.

“You’re my guy,” Rothstein said to Bauman, who finally released his clinch long enough for the director to say a few words to get the actors focused on the work ahead.

The tender moment was not terribly unusual in a theater world where artists express themselves easily with one another. It did, though, illustrate the connection and joy that have become a part of the process for this staging of a story about an American soldier who enters a French village at the end of World War I and finds the inmates of an insane asylum wandering the streets.

The co-production started percolating several years ago after Rothstein watched “Madame Josette’s Nothing Scared Cabaret,” and Interact show that featured the performers with disabilities who make up the troupe. That show was remarkable for the unguarded openness and personality of the actors and singers. Tod Petersen, a Rothstein friend and collaborator, was Interact music director at the time and had helped create the cabaret. Rothstein was smitten.

“This,” he said the other day, “is what theater is supposed to be and rarely is.”

Straightforward and blunt in a presentation, the show was nonetheless complicated and layered for an audience. To wit: Why was it so affecting? Was it because of virtuosity or a sense of feeling sorry, or what?

“It forced you to confront your own voyeurism,” Rothstein said.

Petersen hit another point: “It made you confront your own brokenness, your inner misfit.”

Whatever, the energy and spirit that Rothstein saw that night got him interested in collaborating with Interact. With that notion tucked in his head, he came upon a “King of Hearts” CD on a trip to New York and liked what he heard. He next watched the 1966 French cult movie on which the stage show is based. He and Petersen then approached Interact’s executive director, Gregory Stavrou, who quickly consented to a collaboration.

Checkered past Playwright Steve Tesich teamed with lyricist Jacob Brackman and composer Peter Link in 1977 to adapt the musical from the film. It showed enough promise to garner an invite to Broadway the following year. The producers, however, sacked Tesich and asked veteran Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) to write a new book. The show closed after 48 performances. When the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., revived the show in 2002, it used Teisch’s original book. That is the version Rothstein is using in this production.

Billed as an antiwar treatise, “King of Hearts” challenges logic and sanity within the context of war. “Much of the humor of the piece comes from the illogic of it,” Rothstein said. “The inmates don’t understand violence.”

This production sets up an interesting juxtaposition of styles. Part of Rothstein’s strength as a director derives from his attention to detail. Interact is about the spontaneity, honest, ragged and raw. The director’s challenge is to capture glimpses of that genius – transparent activity – and somehow toss a gentle lasso around them.

“They are so 100 percent honest that any attempt at putting style on their action makes it look fake,” he said. “It’s had to find its own style, much more naturalistic.”

Later, speaking on the same subject, he marveled at moments in rehearsal when an actor would “create something that my brain would never come up with.”

It’s not a secret that actors with disabilities can struggle with rote and prescribed material. The Interact troupe has been working with music director Denise Prosek since November, pounding away at the score with repetition and patience.

“Then when they get it, like four-part harmony in Latin, it’s such a joy to see them do that,” Prosek said. “It’s not been easy on them. We’ve demanded a lot.”

These are not innocents. Like all performers, they are driven by ego, a nose for the spotlight and a determination to get it right. Karen Thorund, for instance, is a reigning diva at Interact. In this production, she needs to fit in with the ensemble. Rothstein laughed as he recalled how Thorud encouraged herself and her stage-mates during one rehearsal to get it right, admonishing, “People are paying 15, 25 bucks to see this!”

“King of Hearts” is Interact’s third foray into collaboration with another Twin Cities theater troupe. Most recently, in 2002, Mixed Blood employed a group for its production of “The Boys Next Door,” a play that featured residents of a group home for folks with disabilities. This show differs because Rothstein is mixing up the cast. For example, Eric Wheeler, Matt Dahlstrom and Bauman – all of whom have Down syndrome – play German soldiers with a flair taken from the Keystone Kops.

“I’ve always through the Downs are natural Zen Buddhists,” Petersen said.

As difficult as it is to put up a book musical, several actors hanging out before a recent rehearsal said it will be tougher when the lights go down on the final performance.

“I love these people,” said Michael Paul. “I’m going to be a wreck on closing night.”

Theatre in Review: King of Hearts

May 4, 2005.By Steven LaVigne, Skyway News.

Back in the 80s, a guy was loudly complaining to his girlfriend because he’d been dragged to a screening of Phillipe de Broca’s “King of Hearts” at Uptown Theatre. I told him to be patient and he’d enjoy the movie. Along with films of Godard, Demy and Truffaut, the 1966 “King of Hearts” is a masterwork of the French New Wave. It features Alan Bates’ finest performance and introduces us to the outstanding (if underused), Genvieve Bujold. Set during World War I, the story concerns Pvt. Charles Plumpick, who’s been assigned to disconnect a bomb planted by German soldiers (Hitler has a cameo) in a small French town. Chased by Germans, he hides in the insane asylum, where the inmates are certain he is the King of Hearts. He falls in love with Coquelicot, a tightrope walker, but while trying to save them from disaster, he must come to terms with his dilemma.

A decade after its release, “King of Hearts” was adapted to the musical theatre with a libretto by Steve Tesich, lyrics by Jacob Brackman and music by Peter Link. On Broadway, it acquired a script by Joseph Stein, and lasted six weeks, but the Goodspeed Opera later gave it new life. In the musical, Plumpick becomes Johnny, an American soldier, and the story occurs the day before the Armistice. Coquelicot becomes Jeunefille, a dancer, and the inmates of the asylum largely resemble circus performers.

I’ll praise the Theater Latte Da and Interact Theatre production before I go further. The production team did a smashing job assembling this production. Stylishly directed by Peter Rothstein, with the music beautifully done by Denise Prosek against John Ckarke Donahue’s gorgeous set, “King of Hearts” is a real audience-pleaser. Every character has some lovely moments. Joel Liestman and Johnny and Stacey Lindell as Jeunefille, are beautifully matched and Tod Petersen is having a ball as the Bishop. Josette Antomarchi as Madame Madeleine, David Roberts as Genevieve and the trio of German soldiers, who are portrayed in Mel Brooks fashion via Three Stooges, are utterly delightful, and there are times when the show is musical theater entertainment at its best.

Now I must bury the show itself, because, in spite of everything, this is a terrible musical. There’s a simple reason. A charming movie, “King of Hearts” doesn’t translate, because what works easily on film can’t always be captured on the stage and, in this case, the score gets in the way of the material so the stage version pales in comparison. While the score tries serving the story, Jacob Brackman’s lyrics are below par musical exposition. Johnny’s opening number, “Here Comes Mine,” for example, is an example of below par musical comedy exposition for a story that requires a little more depth. Little wonder he never wrote for another show.

Steve Teisch’s script is frequently arch and mean-spirited, nowhere near what de Broca intended, and it’s full of offensive, stereotypical characters.

That couple I mentioned above, like everyone else who’s seen the movie, left starry-eyed, because “King of Hearts” is one of the most enchanting films ever made. I wish I’d left the Loring Playhouse starry-eyed but after all was said and done, the musical version will best be forgotten.