Smile Politely

The Station Theatre’s Farinelli and the King lacks identity but hits some high notes

As apropos, albeit terrifying, a story about a world leader at his wit’s end—his psychological state very much holding by a thin thread—may be, I find myself quite perplexed by Farinelli and the King.

On paper, it has the potential to be a stellar show. The era in which it is set offers the opportunity for fantastic costume and set design. The undergirding message of music’s beautiful impact on mental, emotional, and physical health offers the potential for an emotionally engaging story.

Unfortunately, due to ineffective directing and an overly melodramatic lead this particular production falls short of achieving that potential.

Aside from Tania Arazi Coambs focusing on the aforementioned message of music’s healing benefits, her decisions seemed to lack vision which then undermined the show’s identity.

Whether the script demands a certain level of energy, I am unsure, but the cast—Rodney Woodworth, Cara Maurizi, and James Hevel excluded from this assessment—had none. In most exchanges between characters, the cast seemed to just recite lines. They failed to dig into the subtext of the words they said which directly undermined the ability to connect to them emotionally. There was no chemistry. The relationships did not feel believable at all.

The show also suffered from pacing issues. I absolutely adore directors and shows that allow scenes and specfic moments to breathe, but some of Farinelli’s scenes dragged and dragged and dragged. I understand that it is written to be a long show, but it felt much longer than the actual two hour and forty-five minute run time.

Beyond the issues with pacing and delivery, the show suffered from an identity crisis. For the most part, it could not decide whether it was a drama or comedy. Absurdity melded into tragedy, comedy into drama, and it was difficult to tell whether the story should be taken seriously or not.

Sure. Life as we know it draws no lines between drama/tragedy, and comedy; it all blends together. But for this show that lack of distinction proved to be a glaring flaw. Absurdity has its place, and can be extremely effective when used conservatively. However, in the case of Farinelli and the King—especially so with Aaron Miller’s performance as King Philippe V—there was no restraint.

While portraying a character who is experiencing psychological turmoil allows room for creativity, less is more is always a prudent approach. I wish I could have seen a more nuanced performance from Miller; one in which there were distinct shifts in psychological states and behavior. Miller’s performance, instead, came across much too melodramatic. I felt absolutely no emotional connection to the character, and, to be honest, became annoyed by his presence on stage. There were some funny moments, but the laughter came more as a result of the lines that were written or the utter ridiculousness of the character making such absurd statements than Miller’s actual delivery of said lines. It even got to the point where I no longer believed in the suffering of the character.

With all of that said, there were several positives worth noting.

Cara Maurizi (Queen Isabella Farnese) and Rodney Woodworth’s (Don Sebastian de la Cuadra) performances were the two performances that felt tangible. These were the two who I felt an emotional connection to. There was weight to what they said; more to every word than just lines being recited.

I felt Isabella’s inner turmoil as she watched the person she loved fall into a more troubled mental state while at the same time being utterly exhausted from the suffering at the hands of an unstable partner. Maurizi brought to life Isabella’s cognizant dissonance as she longed to rescue her husband from his mental prison while longing for her own freedom and for love not blemished by mental instability. This was very nuanced, and skilled performance by Maurizi.

Woodworth, as well as Maurizi, was a breath of fresh air amidst the absurdity and stiffness of other performances. He could have easily taken a very cliched, melodramatic approach with the canniving and canniving de la Cuadra. Instead, he showed the epitome of restraint while adding a flare that only Woodworth can. With an elegant cane in one hand, and a handkerchief in the other–he would occassional gently hit a cast member with the handkerchief after making a rebuttal in an exchange as if he was scoffing at them without saying a single word–he  

James Hevel (Farinelli) was magical. Although his acting was subdued and simple, his singing was the complete opposite. A male soprano and a trained opera singer, Hevel’s voice grabbed ahold of you and pulled you in. A voice that takes your breath away and breathes life into your soul all at the same time. As wonderful of a experience it was to hear him sing, I wish I could have heard him in space where he didn’t have to hold back. Due to the small size of the venue, it was clear that Hevel had to restrain himself from fully projecting–at certain points of the varied arias and on certain notes you could see his left hand shake. I have never had the desire to attend the opera, but if Hevel is performing there is a first time for everything. 

Finally, the costume design was remarkable. Intricate and beautiful pieces adorned the cast, and, more than performances, pulled me into the era. I must pay my respects to the detailed research and work that was put into gathering such wonderful pieces. Along with the costumes, the live musician accompanying Heve—I’m showing my lack of musical knowledge but I am unsure if the instrument was a harpsichord or a piano forte—was a wonderful addition that aided in some immersion.

If you enjoy a period piece, and don’t mind investing a significant chunk of time, then Farinelli and the King may be the show for you. But be forewarned that the show, even with some of the high notes it hits, is a little rough around the edges. 

Farinelli and the King
The Station Theatre
223 N Broadway Ave., Urbana
October 3rd through 6th, 9th through 13th, and 16th through 19th.
All shows at 7:30 p.m. with the exception of October 13th’s matinee at 3 p.m.
Order tickets online here.

Photos from Facebook event page

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