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Theater review: UFOMT’s Henry VIII biography ‘Rex’ shows potential

SHARE Theater review: UFOMT’s Henry VIII biography ‘Rex’ shows potential

"REX," through Aug. 7, Utah Theatre, 18 W. Center, Logan (435-750-0300 or utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)

LOGAN — Long before William and Kate there was Henry VIII and Catherine … and Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine and Catherine.

British royalty have long been the fascination of many and, as BBC points out, have often found their way onto the stage, from “King Charles III” to “The Audience” to Metropolitan Opera’s Tudor trilogy.

Utah audiences can now catch one lesser-known stage depiction of Henry VIII in Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre’s “Rex.”

The production is a revival of the 1976 musical with lyrics by “Fiddler on the Roof” lyricist Sheldon Harnick, music by Richard Rodgers of “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific” fame, and book by Sherman Yellen.

As the Deseret News previously reported, when the musical first premiered on Broadway in the ’70s, it was not as well received as the production team had initially hoped. The show made its way into the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon and has rarely been performed since.

“Rex” follows Henry VIII and his obsessive quest to produce a male heir. Four of his six wives are included in the musical, with three — Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, the wives who bore children — getting extensive stage time.

In addition to exploring the relationships Henry had with his wives and children, the musical also emphasizes his relationship with his fool, Will Somers.

It’s a lot of history for one production and, at times, it shows. The first act includes Henry’s divorce from Catherine and his pursuit of and marriage to both Anne and Jane, as well as Anne’s beheading and Jane’s death following childbirth. At points, it feels overly crammed with events that go as quickly as they came, and the production would benefit from a more focused approach instead of a cursory one.

As focused as the first act is on facts, the second act is centered on story as the audience gets to know, and see the talents of, Henry’s three children: Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, played skillfully by Jessica Mirshak, Aiden Ankli and Lily Virginia Allen, respectively.

The dynamic between Henry, played by festival founder Michael Ballam, and Will, played by Stefan Espinosa, is a highlight of the show as well as one of the main vehicles of the show’s primary theme: the balance between the desire for power and the need for love.

As Henry pushes away wife after wife and refuses to accept his children for who they are, it’s apparent that Will — who serves as narrator of the show — is the only person who truly understands and knows the real “Harry,” as he calls him. Espinosa’s success in the role of the king’s confidant comes in his nuanced actions. His knowing looks, coaching others on how to approach the king, and perfectly timed lighthearted interventions show this “fool” is much more than comic relief, though he certainly provides that as well.

Ballam portrays a flawed Henry with his wandering eye, entitled air and fleeting hints of softness. He has a steady singing voice — the result of decades of experience in opera and musical theater — and commanding presence fitting of the king.

The show doesn’t shy away from recognizing Henry’s volatile, womanizing reputation and his obsessive (perhaps neurotic) desire for a son, poking fun with quips such as “Solomon had 1,000 wives. (Henry) only has 994 to go” and the French king’s jab that “all Europe knows how much he wants a son.” But the production also attempts to add depth to the monarch, portraying brief moments of lightened attitude, mostly at Will’s prompting, and of inner struggle.

The musical begins with cast members in modern clothes, greeting each other before donning Tudor-period costumes full of texture, pattern and rich color. Watching the actors dress in costume creates a sense of a “play within a play” that is unnecessary and distracting.

Every member of the 12-person cast displays powerful singing voices and adept acting. With a cast so small, actors play multiple roles and went in and out of being part of the ensemble, which could be confusing at times.

Harnick’s lyrics show the skill of a talented wordsmith, and Rodgers’ music has both the pep and dimension for which his work is recognized.

“Rex” is worth the drive to Logan for anyone with an interest in Henry VIII’s history and for the unique chance to see the talents of Broadway greats. Perhaps with a bit more tightening and additional focus, the show can find its way into the limelight the creators always hoped it would have.

Content advisory: “Rex” contains instances of implied sexuality and innuendo throughout.

Email: wwilde@deseretnews.com