Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Farinelli and the King
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Flashdance and The Color Purple

Melody Knudson, Beau Heckman,
and Miles David Romney

Photo by Devon C. Adams
Farinelli and the King, the debut play by Claire van Kampen which received its local premiere in a well-cast and smartly staged production from Southwest Shakespeare Company that closed last weekend, was nominated for a slew of Olivier Awards (2016) and Tony Awards (2018) but came up empty handed at both awards ceremonies. While it's sad that this intriguing play failed to win any awards, it is somewhat understandable since the piece is repetitive, meanders at times, and comes across as more of a character study than a fully fleshed out drama. Fortunately, Southwest Shakespeare regulars Beau Heckman and Jim Coates were on hand, as the King and the show's main protagonist, respectively, along with great support from the rest of the cast, so while the performances may have outweighed the play, the end result of this production was still satisfying.

The fictional play is based on historical figures and situations and set over a period of 25 years, beginning in 1715. Spain's King Phillipe V, suffering from some type of mental illness (most likely bi-polarism), is frequently found talking to goldfish, hearing voices, and appearing delusional, frightened, and often unsure of who he is or where he is. His long-suffering and loving wife, Queen Isabella, after hearing the famous Italian castrato Farinelli perform in London, has the idea to bring Farinelli back to Spain with her to have him sing for her husband in the hopes his angelic voice will sooth the King's pains. Meanwhile, the King's frustrated government minister tries to force his abdication, claiming the King is delusional and unfit to hold office. Will Farinelli's voice calm the King and restore him to a healthy state? Will Farinelli be content leaving behind his sold-out crowds full of adoring fans and now only performing to an audience of one?

The premiere production of the show, which opened in London in 2015 and then moved to Broadway in 2017, originally stared van Kampen's three-time Tony Award winning husband Mark Rylance as King Philippe, which may explain why it was produced. The drama could have used some serious editing, as there are many repetitive scenes in which Phillipe suffers from his mental illness, but these subsequent episodes never provide any new information or details to the story. It's also extremely long, running close to three hours. The length would be fine if there were more to it. We also know very little about any of the supporting characters, and while there is discussion around the healing power of music, and the ending which focuses on Farinelli is quite touching, there isn't truly that much profound that van Kampen has to say in the play. There is also a bit of romantic intrigue that seems to come out of nowhere. It's a good play with an intriguing plot that, if it was further polished, could be a great one.

Fortunately, under Carmen Jakobi's sure-footed direction, the Southwest Shakespeare cast excelled. Beau Heckman was stellar as the crazed but lovable King. His swift changes in personality, from raving lunatic to calm and intelligent leader, were beautifully portrayed and incredibly believable. As Farinelli, Miles David Romney's soft, calm, and even measured line delivery was a good counterpoint to Heckman's exuberant performance. Romney's singing voice delivered beautiful performances of the numerous vocal pieces in the play.

As Queen Isabella, Melody Knudson was radiant and believable as a woman doing whatever she needed to do to help and protect her husband. Jim Coates was superb as the exasperated, cold and conniving de la Cuadra, the Chief Minister of Spain. Coates' expert facial expressions and perfectly executed dialogue delivered another superb performance that provided much nuance into the role. In smaller roles, Brandon Gray and Gustavo A. Flores were very good as the King's Doctor and one of the King's servants, respectively, and Ben Tyler was excellent as Farinelli's British theater manager who is a bit bummed when he loses his main meal ticket to the Spanish King.

Tom Holmberg's set design was simple but effective, with the use of projections from Colin Carter to provide a changing backdrop. The costumes by Maci Hosler were exquisite, with embellishments and embroidered pieces that beautifully depicted the period of the piece. The Baroque music and vocal pieces, performed by a quintet of skilled musicians under Sergio Freeman Osuna's direction, were quite charming and made you pay attention.

Since there was little known about mental illness at the time of the play, and treatments bordered on being barbaric, Farinelli and the King focuses on the interesting and intriguing topic about the healing power of music and the burden having that power can have on an artist. I just wish the play could be better at delivering on that message.

Southwest Shakespeare Company's Farinelli and the King ran March 4 to March 20, 2022, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 E Main St., Mesa AZ. Tickets and information on upcoming shows can be found at or by calling 480-644-6500

Director: Carmen Jakobi
Music Director: Sergio Freeman Osuna
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Video/Media/Sound Designer: Colin Carter
Scenic Designer: Tom Holmberg
Prop Designer: Beau Heckman
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston

Farinelli: Miles David Romney
King Phillip V of Spain/ Tailor: Beau Heckman
Queen Isabella of Spain: Melody Knudson
de la Cuadra, Chief Minister of Spain: Jim Coates
Jethro/Miguel: Gustavo A. Flores
Dr Cervi: Brandon Gray
John Rich: Ben Tyler