Review: KING OF HEARTS by Alchemy Theatre Company, May 31 - June 16, 2024
by Michael Meigs


The inmates of St. Anne's (photo by James Redondo)


Alchemy Theatre’s magic is potent, both because of its powerful ingredients and because it’s been brewing for a long time. Artistic Michael Cooper’s concept of reviving neglected musicals dates back to before 2020, for that’s when Alchemy cast Mack and Mabel, the 1974 musical that closed after 66 Broadway performances. COVID delayed the Austin production until 2022. In 2023 the company recreated the 1976 musical The Baker’s Wife, which toured the U.S. but never made it to Broadway. 


Both of were concocted in the tiny, hard-to-find Maestrogeorge Theatre of Carol Hickey’s acting studio in east Austin. This time around, in a magical transformation of collaboration with the Zach Theatre, Alchemy is presenting The King of Hearts at the tucked-away Whisenhut Theatre, a stage-in-the-round not much bigger than the Maestrogeorge but much better appointed and more accessible.


Cooper has again searched out a “failed” production of the U.S. musical theatre to prove that the quality of the concept, the libretto, and the score provide no guarantee of commercial and financial success. Like Norman Blumensaat of Austin’s Different Stages, he is intent on mining neglected gems, polishing them, and setting them so that we few, we lucky few in Austin, can understand, enjoy, and appreciate them.


The 1978 musical King of Hearts, based on Philippe de Broca’s 1966 satirical film Le Roi de cœur, opened during a three-month-long newspaper strike and lasted only 48 performances.


Chelsea Lane, Sarah Marie Curry, Sebastian Vitale, Christopher Saenz (photo by James Redondo)


Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut must have provided inspiration for Alchemy, for just after the arrival of the twenty-first century that company staged each of these neglected works — King of Hearts and The Baker’s Wife in 2002 and Mack and Mabel in 2004. Libretto and score of the 1978 King of Hearts were extensively altered by “script doctors” during try-outs and production; Goodspeed’s version restored much of the early libretto and score, and that’s the version now playing in Austin.


Chelsea Lane, Sebastian Vitale (photo by James Redondo)


Sarah Marie Curry as Jeunefille (photo by James Redondo)

These Alchemy productions are not mini-musicals. They’re staged in small spaces, yes. Even the Whisenhut is less commodious than usual, for a quarter of the seats were removed to provide a platform for musical director Ellie Jarrett Shattles and her piano as well as additional playing space for the fourteen-member cast. And all three Alchemy productions have featured powerful talents and voices. Shattles, a one-person piano orchestra, has provided music and direction for each. Powerful, personable actor-singers Sebastian Vitale and Sarah Marie Curry have been featured in all three.


King of Hearts features other equally charismatic and appealing performers. Patrick Regner is the enthusiastically naïve protagonist Private Johnny Able, and Chelsea Lane is the brothel mistress Mme Madeleine. Instantly recognizable character actors Leslie Hethcox and Tim Blackwood are featured in the lively, striking cast. Perhaps inevitably for the epoch, there's a mime—Christopher Saenz with the overcute name of Demosthenes.


But what’s it all about?


Patrick Regner as Pvt. Johnny Able (photo by James Redondo)Glad you asked! De Broca’s film, a cutting satire of militarism, is set on the last day of World War I when all the world awaited the agreed cessation of hostilities. German forces have mined the tiny imaginary town of “Dutemps” (French: of [our] time] and intend to blow it up at the last instant of the war. The stratagem is detected and inhabitants flee—all except the lunatics confined at St. Anne's Asylum. Amidst the fog of war, the U.S. expeditionary force sends Pvt. Johnny Able to reconnoiter. All the townspeople he encounters in the booby-trapped(!) village are entirely delusional. The lunatics proclaim him their savior and name him after a random card drawn from a pack: the king of hearts. These misunderstandings, opposed views, and the colorful eccentricities built into the new population of Dutemps provide plenty of material for song. The frustrated Pvt. Able's mission of defusing the hidden explosives is continually obstructed by much more interesting and more humane interactions.


In the Whisenhut's small space everything occurs almost within reach of the audience; indeed, in one frantic scene toward the end I found that a discarded necktie had coiled itself around my ankle. Proximity gave us the rare chance to appreciate the actors' concentration and devotion to the characters. Sebastian Vitale as a circus artist devastated by grief was haunted and eternally unable to focus on events; in contrast, Sarah Marie Curry as his daughter the ingénue was attentive, alert, and intent at every instant. Chelsea Lane as Mme Madeleine was a profusion of sensual, melancholy femininity both as lunatic and as new-born proprietress of a house of ill repute . . . which was not disreputable at all; it was the living, throbbing heart of these vulnerable people.


Choreography by Kelly Hasandras is thoroughly enjoyable, and director Cooper puts the released inmates through lots of joyful antics. The heart of the story, inevitably, is Love—the complete opposite of the force driving the armed soldiers and Pvt. Able. His conversion is inevitable, and we await it eagerly.


Patrick Regner in the protagonist role of Able is a new face in Austin, back from eight years in Chicago. I expect him to be a regular on our musical theatre stages if we can retain him. He has charisma, lots of energy, humor, and a fine singing voice. And as a bonus, he can tap dance.


Chelsea Lane (photo by James Redondo)In our day and age, stereotypes may offend. But remember, this work is from the 1960’s and 70’s, so take a grain of salt if you must. The mentally ill in this story are creatively ill, devoted both to their delusions and to one another. Soldiers are all bad guys, though Pvt. Able is a candidate for redemption. And the French—well, they’re French, right? They’re sensualists, as libidinous as rabbits. 


A passage or two in this lengthy production would have benefited from review by a French speaker. Curry as Jeunefille (French: young girl), the sweetly guileless virgin in love with their awkward king of hearts, has her name mispronounced as “Joon-fi,” a monicker that sounds almost Asian. She’s a “danseuse” (French: female dancer or ballerina). I winced; again that same French vowel was mangled. And while I’m growsing, the military uniforms should have borne rank  insignia or else their blouses should have been entirely neutral, without those rows of decorations. (Trivial, I know!) 


During an excited and lengthy, energetic wordless report, Saenz as the mime repeatedly had to haul up his trousers. My spouse found that entirely plausible in the context; after all, the pajama-clad inmates had been obliged to scrounge for street clothes, so perhaps that pair just didn't quite fit. I'd rather have have seen the young man helped out with a pair of suspenders.


None of these quibbles will impede your enjoyment of a clever and appealing musical story that, sadly, wouldn't be a commercial success today either. It's a gem to be curated and relished. Go gather it up.





(click to view four-page program)

(via Alchemy Theatre)




by Peter Link, Jacob, Brackman, Steve Tesich
Alchemy Theatre Company

May 31 - June 16, 2024
Whisenhut Stage
1510 Toomey Road
Zach Theatre
Austin, TX, 78704

May 31 - June 16, 2024

Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Alchemy Theatre Company at Zach Theatre's Whisenhut stage

Tickets are $30 - $55 and can be purchased from Zach Theatre HERE.