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.