Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s North American premiere of THE KING’S SPEECH is a wholly delightful theatrical affair, rife with British charm. While the Holocaust and World War II certainly loom as reluctant monarch Prince Albert, Duke of York (aka “Bertie”) ascends the throne after his older brother David voluntarily abdicates so he can marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, David Seidler’s play itself maintains a cheerful tone. The play focuses on Bertie’s journey to find his voice, both by committing himself to his service as the newly minted king of England but also as he works to overcome his stuttering with the help of eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue. Seidler’s script suggests, of course, that Bertie wants to do this work so he can become an authoritative and effective leader worthy of England’s citizens.
By making the play such a personal story about Bertie, Seidler manages to work in the critical historical context without having it overshadow the ultimately uplifting narrative. Seidler’s play is a stage version of the 2010 film of the same name, featuring Colin Firth as Bertie and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel.
The production design lends to the play’s sense of opulence and entertainment, while also allowing the performers to share many intimate moments without being swallowed up by the scenery. Set designer Kevin Depinet’s structural design gives a sense of the grandiosity of Buckingham Palace, while allowing Hana Kim’s elegant projection designs to make the versatile backdrop convey an array of different spaces. David C. Woolard’s posh costume designs certainly suggest the elegant and posh garments worthy of the royal family. John Gromada’s original music has a cinematic quality with musical themes that underscore the play’s dramatic and intimate moments.
Directed by Michael Wilson, THE KING’S SPEECH succeeds largely because the dynamic between Harry Hadden-Paton’s Bertie and James Frain’s Lionel Logue is utterly charming. Hadden-Paton (who may be known to audiences for his turn as Henry Higgins in the recent Broadway revival of MY FAIR LADY) is magnificently winsome as Bertie. He makes Bertie’s personality a delightful blend of irresistible charm with a dash of slight awkwardness, befitting a man reluctant to be in the spotlight. It’s impossible not to root for Hadden-Paton’s Bertie, and that level of empathy is necessary to make the play work. Frain’s Lionel is daffy and likable; he can spar with Bertie like no one else. Yet Frain also enables us to see a more vulnerable side of the character, as with his various auditions for Shakespearean productions across London. Though Lionel may not have found success as an actor, Frain allows us to see that his work with Bertie may allow him to fulfill another unexpected dream.
Seidler’s play also demonstrates that Bertie and Lionel have become the people they are because they have strong women by their sides. Rebecca Night is lovely as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth, who provides a critical support system for her husband. Night demonstrates Elizabeth’s unending loyalty to her husband, and her desire to help him persevere. Elizabeth Ledo lends a wonderful quirkiness to Myrtle, Lionel’s wife. Ledo plays the role for maximum humor, but she also shows us that Myrtle’s feelings of being an outsider often parallel how Bertie feels about his inability to speak in a manner he deems proper.
THE KING’S SPEECH is ultimately a heartwarming play about a reluctant monarch who finds his voice, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s grand staging makes it all the more enjoyable.
THE KING’S SPEECH plays in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through October 20. Tickets are $50-$90. Visit ChicagoShakes.com or call 312.595.5600.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com