Review Roundup: FARINELLI AND THE KING Arrives on Broadway with Mark Rylance - All the Reviews!

By: Dec. 17, 2017
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Shakespeare's Globe production of Farinelli and the King, starring three-time Tony Award winner and Academy Award winner Mark Rylance opened tonight, December 17, at Broadway's Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street).

FARINELLI AND THE KING is a new play by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove, designed by Jonathan Fensom, with musical arrangements also by Claire van Kampen.

King Philippe V of Spain (Mark Rylance), plagued by insomnia, lies awake in his chamber. The Queen, desperate for a cure, hears of Farinelli - a castrato with a voice so divine it has the power to captivate all who hear it. Philippe is astonished when Farinelli sings, and begs him to stay. But will Farinelli, one of the greatest celebrities of his time, choose a life of solitude over fame and fortune in the opera houses of Europe?

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: In the paradoxically plaintive and joyous sound of a castrato's voice channeling Handel's music, the King has glimpsed a paradise beyond his fractious court and his burdened royal self. Trying to create that idyllic vision in the real world, in a rustic outpost in the forest in the second act, is an experiment doomed to failure. But watching Mr. Rylance's Philippe experience Farinelli's voice, we hear what he hears. And an actor and a singer temporarily turn a night at the theater in an anxious city into an Eden beyond worldly care, all the more precious for its evanescence.

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: With the script playing to Rylance's strengths, such as asides to the audience and jolts of anachronistic language played for laughs, the imbalance of power in the two leading roles keeps the piece from fulfilling its high potential. It's nevertheless an enjoyable venture, with the sumptuousness of director John Dove's production helping to mask the flaws. The elegant visuals by designer Jonathan Fensom and costume coordinator Lorraine Ebdon-Price (accented by hair and wigs by Campbell Young Associates), are illuminated by lighting designer Paul Russell with candles placed at footlights and hanging from chandeliers. The playing area is surrounded by two levels of onstage seating for both audience members and music director Robert Howarth's ensemble of musicians playing van Kampen's arrangement on period instruments.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: The performances under John Dove's direction are uniformly superb; in addition to Crane and Iestyn, they include the near-palpable forbearance of Melody Grove's Isabella and the Rushmore-faced Edward Peel as Philippe's conniving nemesis. And then there's Rylance. (Remember Rylance? It's a review about Rylance.) He compels us to watch him in close-up, because he has the star's gift of playing to the cheap seats without actually playing to the cheap seats. A sixteenth-inch twitch of the shoulder conveys the world-weariest of shrugs. The slight escalation of those drawbridge eyebrows rings louder than any shout of protest. And the throwaway line, like the subtle gesture, penetrates as keenly as any of Richard III's mocking asides. Meticulously off-handed, it's funny and sad, a performance to be savored in a totally engaging little triumph of a show.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: Unlike in Alan Bennett's play The Madness of George III, and its film adaptation, the deteriorating mental health of a monarch here doesn't constitute a sustaining narrative arc, even if Rylance's commanding performance remains the center of attention. (It's certainly the main reason for the production's Broadway transfer.) The more interesting thread is the motivation of Farinelli to keep extending his stay in Madrid, his love for Isabella becoming a contributing factor, and his refusal ever to sing in public again.

Matt Windman, AM New York: It may contain arias from obscure Baroque operas and candlelit chandeliers, but the play is, at heart, a straightforward and sentimental "bromance," one in which Farinelli is willing to give up adoring audiences all over Europe to serve at the king's command. It is also a celebration of the power of music to overcome emotional and mental instability. Rylance, who excels at playing sad and strange characters, gives a full-bodied and endearing performance that combines volatile behavior and over-the-top comedy with gentle contemplation. As it turns out, van Kampen, who also did the musical arrangements, and Rylance are married, so it's no wonder that "Farinelli and the King" is so specifically suited to their talents.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Fortunately, Rylance puts his full arsenal of mannerisms on display to prevent this king from being the royal bore of Madrid. Whenever van Kampen's dialogue turns florid, he gives it a flat modern reading, and throws in an F-bomb. Elsewhere, he vocally stumbles and pauses, and lets dull phrases wither in his mouth for added comic effect. Meanwhile, Grove's queen suffers without giving much range to her desperation other than an occasional eyeball roll or nostril flare. And Crane's castrato remains glum, especially when Davies is singing. Dove delivers an appropriately spectacular entrance for the singing Farinelli at the end of Act 1, but for the most part his direction of the two Farinellis is a major waste of potentially golden opportunities.

Adam Feldman, Time Out: Davies's singing provides most of the high notes in this otherwise workmanlike play. The nature of the central musical therapy is barely explored; instead, we get contrived court intrigue, low comedy about English theater, a rushed quasiromance and an equally hasty coda, delivered in a steady march of flat-footed exposition. "I'm telling you this as the King's chief minister," says the King's chief minister. "As the King's doctor, I am of the opinion that the King's illness has turned," says the King's doctor. "As the King's second wife I am unpopular," says the queen (a bland Melody Grove). The pleasures of John Dove's production-the music, Rylance's halting propulsion, Jonathan Fensom's sumptuous sets and costumes-gleam to no purpose, real jewels glued to a trinket crown.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: In other words, "Farinelli and the King," a strange and slow-burning theatrical experience in many ways and seemingly focused on just one relationship, actually turns out to be a remarkably complicated exploration of the most important question in the arts of the last 500 years, i.e., who gets to go? And, of course, if you get to go to this, you get the incomparably immersed Rylance, that most live of performers, an actor who reacts to others without particularly caring whether the force coming his way was planned or spontaneous, spoken or sung, in the script or merely a squawk from someone in the seats. To Rylance, it's all an equal artistic input demanding an immediate response.

Steven Suskin, Huffington Post: This is plenty enough to put Farinelli and the King on the highly recommended list. But the drama, I'm afraid, doesn't match the rest of the evening. The plot is intriguingly promising, yes; but the execution is merely functional. After a while, we begin to think that the play is built around the star's performing strengths, as opposed to the performance being built to support the play. Rylance's strengths are myriad, of course; and his wife/collaborator knows every trick he has in his overflowing sack. Sure, why not give him a role which displays them all? Only we feel like we are watching him display them all. And we know, from years of watching excellent actors, that they are likely at their best when they are not simply playing to their strengths. Rylance is delightful and delicious and exuberant and altogether lovable here; but we are seeing the actor, not a dramatically-realized version of Philippe V. Rylance is altogether excellent; the fault, to paraphrase Cassius, is not in our star.

Barbara Schuler, Newsday: Really, though, this is a play about the curative qualities of music. While it would be satisfying enough to simply embrace Rylance's mastery and the glorious works of (mostly) Handel, there is a more significant message, one well documented by research but perhaps more valid to theater lovers in the soaring popularity of "You Will Be Found" from "Dear Evan Hansen." Bullied, anxious, depressed? Music can make you feel better.

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: Rylance is riveting as the bedeviled ruler, but his star turn still raised mixed feelings. At times he is deliciously daft and spontaneous, but he's also occasionally too stagy and calculating to ring true. In some moments, you see him working. The play's bright creative stroke is having Sam Crane, who's wonderfully sympathetic, act the part of Carlo, and sweet-voiced countertenor Iestyn Davies sing as Farinelli. (James Hall sings at some performances.) As selections by Handel are sung, both actors stand side-by-side in near-mirror images. It's a stirring comment on one man's duality.

Tim Teeman, Daily Beast: The play, to be fair, does not aspire to be encyclopedic. It is, like Farinelli's operas, an entertainment-and one specifically for Rylance to play with all manner of facial expressions and tones. If the story palls, look around you. Director John Dove uses every bit of the theater, with actors going up and down the aisles, and musicians, led by Robert Howarth on harpsichord, placed in the gods. Jonathan Fensom's design is your own visual test for the evening: The theater is lushly paneled, as if we are indeed at court, with descending screens signifying different settings. But the other bit of truly crucial magic is Paul Russell's lighting. Six chandeliers filled with candles act as the stage's main illumination. There are candles all around the stage in boxes. Where is the other light coming from? Seemingly from the existing, beautiful lighting of the Belasco, which is variously raised and lowered in intensity. Perhaps Russell has hidden other lighting genius more surreptitiously. Whatever, your eyes and ears will leave Farinelli happy indeed.

Elizabeth Bradley, Broadway News: Overall, there is a fairytale-like lightness to the simplicity of the storytelling. This quality charms in places but can seem predictable or overly "on the money" in others. ... However, the fairytale-like script leaves the supporting company, which is made up of strong actors, with underdeveloped characters. It is hard to get a read, for example, on the motives of the chancellor charged with keeping Spain glued together, though veteran character actor Edward Peel brings the character of Don Sebastian as vividly to life as he can. Similarly, the pivotal role of Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) would benefit from further dramatic explication. We are meant to believe in the unassailable bond between the older monarch and Isabella, his young second wife, until we somewhat abruptly are not. And though she occasionally demonstrates that she is savvy in matters of statecraft, the Queen is, at the same time, almost saintly in her perseverance and stoicism, which makes the character hard to parse.

Sara Holdren and Justin Davidson, Vulture:
J.D.: Davies is one of the best countertenors out there, a performer of immense sensitivity. I would have liked to hear some of the fiery, top-note showoff arias that Farinelli was famous for, so the slower, more expressive pieces that he sings to the King make sense in context. But the truth is that Davies doesn't really sound anything like Farinelli - or even the way he's described in the play. I last heard Davies in October, in Thomas Adès's opera The Exterminating Angel at the Met, and as much as I loved encountering him again in the Belasco, which is much more intimate, I didn't really understand the integration between Handel's music and Van Kampen's play.
S.H.: We in the audience are being asked to have the same experience as the king: Just listen and let it wash over you as a sensory experience. Be transported, touch a piece of heaven.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: In the context of the period setting, the anachronistic language is barbarically contemporary. A theater impresario, for instance, complains that "so many people want a piece" of his star performer; even his wife, who "has been on my case since we opened." That's a pity, since director John Dove has taken such pains to re-create the heavily gilded style of the formal Baroque setting of this production, which originated at Shakespeare's Globe Theater in 2015. The richly textured costumes look especially sumptuous in the blaze of candlelight (supplied by designer Paul Russell), and the period musical instruments - harpsichord, violins, viola, theorbo, Baroque guitar - all sing true, especially as stripped of all mechanical amplification.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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