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Farinelli and The King

What would you have me sing? — Farinelli.

Ah. How delightful! Instead of pondering the question of whether we should invade this country or that, we simply decide what to have you sing!
— Phillippe, during his getting-to-know-you scene with the famous opera star who will become his personal singing therapist. Phillippe continues to see paralells between himself and the famous opera singer, at one point declaring that as Farinelli's voice isn't natural, neither is his being king, since his crown was thrust on him as a young child by his grandfather , as was Farinelli's castration by his brother.
 Farinelli And The King
Audiences seem to love plays about less than tightly wrapped monarchs, and actors have long feasted on these roles. Now music director-composer Claire Van Kampen has harnessed the true story of the mentally fragile King Phillippe V of Spain (1683-1746) for her playwriting debut.

Van Kampen didn't have to leave home to find the perfect Phillippe. After all, who better to capture this king's mix of weird sudden mood swings and kingly shrewdness with endearing whimsy and vulnerability than her husband Mark Rylance. And who better than this much lauded actor to give this history inspired comic fable the starry buzz to carry it from London to Broadway's beautiful Belasco theater where his Shakespeare double bill was a sell-out four years ago (King Richard the Third & Twelfth Night ).

Clearly Van Kampen wrote Farinelli and the King as much for Mr. Rylance as herself. That said, the first name of the title is that of the 18th Century opera star Farinelli. And rightly so. It's the presence of this famous Italian born castrato singer, that makes King Phillippe's story a unique addition to the list of mad king plays and movies.

An excellent feature by theater critic and opera librettist David Cote that's inserted into the program is full of fascinating insights into the historical truths behind Farinelli and the King. Though Cote backs up the play's factual essence, it's clear that Van Kampen has taken enough liberties with historic facts to allow her play to champion the healing effect of music on depressed and otherwise troubled minds.

Iestyn Davies and Sam Crane
The playwright's vision for having two Farinellis — an actor (Sam Crane) with a singing doppelganger (counter tenor Iestyn Davies) for the musical interludes)— heightens the dramatic point/counterpoint of Farinelli and Phillippe's divided selves. Fortunately the shared casting fits the mirroring of the characters' psyches very well, and both Crane and Davies are quite fine. For classical music lovers, each time Davies steps out of Crane's shadow to sing another aria will be a thrill. However, this isn't your sure fire crowd pleaser so pop music enthusiasts will need an open mind to also be thrilled by the uniqueness of that castrato sound. Additional music is provided by seven musicians seated in an upstage balcony.

The parallels between the king and the singer that are brought to the fore include the unease both feel about having been thrust into the public limelight too early to have had a say-so — Phillippe crowned to keep power in the family and Farinelli castrated to preserve his voice. Phillippe's mental problems are more out front than Farinelli's, but both are weighed down by the pressures of their situations — Phillippe's from his political advisers and Farinelli's from the demands of pleasing huge audiences.

As the mirroring device makes Phillippe and Farinelli's long-term historically true connection more believable, so Van Kampen's overall reimagining of their story also enabled director John Dove and designer Jonathan Fensom to create a lovely low key theatrical production.

The script wastes no time to let us see the dire mental state into which King Phillippe has retreated. His refusal to get dressed and other strange behavior — like talking to his goldfish — have forced his wife, Isabella (Melody Grove impressively patient as the supportive Queen) to keep his chief counsellor Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (Edward Peel) from making him abdicate. Given the failure of conventional medical treatments, Isabella heads to London to enlist the great Farinelli in hopes that he can musically.restore her husband's sanity.

Director John Dove's and Designer Jonathan Fensom's atmospheric staging is implemented without any high tech help. Painted canvas back walls are dropped down to conjure up scenes taking us from the Spanish court to the London opera house and the forest where the recovered king determines to experience the full glory of the music of the spheres with his Queen and Farinelli.

Though aiming to replicate but not quite delivering the look and feel of Rylance's previous triumph at this venue, this production's simplicity has its own charm courtesy of hanging candelabras and hand-carried lit candles. The elaborate, period perfect costumes and wigs are characters in their own right, and the look-alike outfirs for the two Farinellis makes the scenes in which one merges into the other especially effective. Good use is also made of a typically Shakespearean trapdoor and there's a literal flight into the heavenly sphere by the singing Farinelli that is breathtaking.

Even though Farinelli and the King is very much a celebration of music's healing powers, Ms. Van Kampen's, like her characters, also uses it as a mirror to reflect the issue of public access to the benefits and joys of something like music. This is supported by the way Dove and Fensom have extended the playing area into the front of the orchestra, and bringing a sizeable segment of the audience into on-stage seats. Thus the initially slow second act picks up steam when the King realizes that Farinelli's glorious singing has drawn other people to his private forest idyll. True to the play's fairy tale with a happy ending mood, Phillippe rushes into the orchestra section and welcomes everyone to partake of his heretofore private joy.

Rylance is unquestionably the play's ticket selling marquee name. But, lucky for us in New York, the original British company is has come along to give solid support.

To conclude, Fanelli and the King is more an enjoyable, fanciful entertainment than a play likely to join the canon of Shakspeare's memorable king plays. But though the United States is a democracy and not a monarchy, we do currently have a less than tightly wrapped President with king-like aspirations — a leader who, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd puts it "wanders around howling in the storm like a late-stage Lear . . .aging, blowing, spouting, wits turning in his White House of dark delusions." That's why I found myself leaving the theater with the fervent hope that someone will come up with a few songs to stem all the narcissistic, ill-considered presidential tweeting.

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Farinelli And The King
Play with music by Claire van Kampen
Directed by John Dove
Set and Costume Designer: Jonathan Fensom
Cast: Mark Rylance as King Philippe V of Spain, Sam Crane as Farinelli, Huss Garbiya as Doctor Jose Cervi, Colin Hurley as John Rich, Edward Peel as De La Cuadra, Melody Grove as Isabella Farnese, Lucas Hall as Jethro/Miguel, Iestyn Davies (Singer), James Hall (Singer at matinee performances).
Musical Arranger: Claire van Kampen
Lighting Designer: Paul Russelll
Costume Coordinator: Lorraine Erdon-Price
Hair and Wigs: Campbell Young Associates
Musicians: Pavlo Boznosiuk, Jonathan Byers, Chloe Fedor, Robert Howarth, Pippa MacMillan, Kyle Miller, Daniel Swenberg
Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 hours, plus 1 15-minute intermission
Belasco Theatre 111 West 44th Street
From 12/05/18; opening 12/17/17; closing 3/25/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/16/17 press performance

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