LOGAN — Back in 1976, Richard Rodgers penned Rex, what was to be one of his final musicals, with a libretto by Sheldon Harnick. By that time, Oscar Hammerstein had passed, and the once great duo was no more. Love them or hate them, there was something to the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein that churned out mass hits that are still widely performed today due to their entertainment value and relevance to a modern audience. With Rex, however, it is clear why some musicals stay buried in the past (and most rightly so).
King Henry VIII and his many affairs is still a highly popular subject for storytelling, and there seems to be a new novel, television series, or film about the Tudors every few years. The tyrannical king has been painted in shades of grey fairly often, and that is how audiences tend to best receive him: villainous, boisterous, rude, and unseemly. He is the consummate Black Hat, the mad king of England. Rex attempts to paint the monarch as a little more sympathetic, playing off his worse parts and abuse of his wives and children as jolly and comedic, with a sort of a, “Oh, that Henry. What a scamp!” feeling. It was odd and disjointed and frankly a bit creepy. Indeed, “creepy” is the one word I would use to sum up this production as a whole.
Michael Ballam, while still a skilled singer, is showing his age. Cast alongside young female co-stars, his quips of, “you’ve grown up quite nicely” and constant comments about how he wants younger women came off as icky. I saw absolutely no reason that they couldn’t have cast older actresses as Catherine (especially as they reference the fact that she is supposed to be ten years older than Henry), Anne, and Jane. But it would have just been easier to just cast someone younger as Henry. The obvious theme of Rex is a woman’s decreasing value as she ages, so it was disappointing to see that the lesson hasn’t been learned by casting directors.
The play was presented in a grassroots theater style, with actors coming onstage in undergarments and then changing into their 16th-century garb. I didn’t particularly like this directing choice by Maggie L. Harrer, particularly as the play went on and the themes got darker while the toddling, “baby-horse-just-standing-up” style of goofy fun persisted. The master of ceremonies was the Fool, played almost too earnestly by Stefan Espinosa. Though Espinosa was one of my favorites in this giggle-mugging grim piece, there was something jarring about having the tale presented like a children’s storybook and then peppered with bawdy, adult humor. Espinosa would go from singing a lullaby to the children to humping the court minstrel, cracking some wise about testicles that felt deliriously out of joint. Much of this was not Espinosa’s fault, but I wondered what Sherman Yellen’s script would have been like in the hands of a slightly more deft comedian.
As the play went on in a ghoulish pace and Henry’s wives got younger and younger, I half expected him to next make an entrance with the apparent 17-year-old in the cast. But oh, no: she was to play his daughter Elizabeth. Indeed, the one bright and shining spot in this play was Aiden Ankli in the role of Elizabeth I, her bright, crackling energy a merciful reprieve from the galloping misogyny. In a scene where Elizabeth argued with her father over her rights as a princess, she proved formidable, her slight height nothing to her towering strength. In other words, Ankli was everything I could want from Queen Bess.
With entirely forgettable music and a story that left me with sour stomach, I am not recommending this production of Rex. It is my belief that there is no shame in letting sleeping horses not be beaten with pixie sticks…is that the saying?