York Theatre Company, NYC – October 2000

Review by John Kenrick

Although Rex has not been staged anywhere since its six week Broadway run came to an end in 1976, its memory has lived on. This is partly due to Nicole Williamson, the star who's tempestuous behavior included slapping a fellow actor during curtain calls and supposedly raising all sorts of hell behind the scenes. But the show owes far more to the very classy cast recording that preserved a rich and sometimes ravishing score by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by no less than Sheldon Harnick. Many of those critics who lambasted the production liked the songs, and many showtune buffs have praised it over the years – including Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has said that "Away From You" was as glorious as any Rodgers ballad.

Common wisdom has held that no musical could succeed with so unlikable a hero as Henry VIII. What audience could begin to sympathize with a man who butchers his wives, terrorizes his children and massacres those who oppose him? Charles Laughton's charm made the character likeable enough on screen, and a BBC mini-series starring Keith Michell depicted Henry as a fascinating monster. But the hero of a musical?

A recent CD release brought the score new attention, and no doubt encouraged the York Theatre Company to give the show a try as part of its Musicals in Mufti series. Unlike the more elaborate Encores! series at City Center, the Mufti concert readings use single piano accompaniment, with no mikes or props. The casts are first rate, giving the material a fair hearing – well, as fair as one can hope on just five days of rehearsal time.

Patrick Page, who is currently stealing Broadway's Beauty and the Beast as Lumiere, gave Henry a rough and ready swagger, and Melissa Errico is riveting as both Anne Boleyn and the Princess Elizabeth, but Harnick and librettist Sherman Yellen have compromised the integrity of both characters with ill-advised revisions. Superb in their solos, they join forces for a sweet rendition of "Away From You."

B.D. Wong is radiant as Will Somers, the jester who narrates the action, needles Henry and acts as advisor to the young Elizabeth. Wong has proven time and again that he one of the most talented musical actors of our day – when is someone going to give this delightful man an original hit musical to wow us with? As Henry's first wife Catherine, Rebecca Eichenberger stops the show with the magnificent "As Once I Loved You," and such stage stalwarts as Richard Easton, William Parry, Paul Shoeffler and the gorgeous Christopher Sieber make the most of every supporting role.

For Rex to become a workable project, it must first have a new book that makes some sense of Henry VIII's cruel actions and gives Elizabeth some real fire – its score is too good to dismiss. But the existing book, despite recent revisions, makes Henry too hateful and his daughter uninspiring. The crucial song "In Time" once allowed Will Somers to reassure Elizabeth that her time will come – now, the authors have rewritten it as Elizabeth reassuring her doomed brother Edward that he will be a great king. We know he won't, and that fate will make Elizabeth the queen of a golden age – so a touching number becomes a hollow waste of time.

Perhaps the masters should not be allowed to revise their old works. We know Stephen Sondheim has often wished he could revise his lyrics for West Side Story – a desecration that Leonard Bernstein and his estate have wisely forbidden. If Sheldon Harnick restored his original lyrics and found a new librettist, Rex might have a chance. As it stands, it remains a fascinating failure and one of the most interesting "forgotten" scores on CD.

To 101's review of the Rex CD

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