‘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