‘Farinelli and the King’ review: A ‘bromance’ tribute to power of music

In need of some relaxing or uplifting music to cure the blues or provide stress relief? Why settle for some random playlist on Spotify when you can hire an opera star to sing for you on demand? This may not sound very practical, but history suggests that it once cured a king of madness.

In the new but decidedly old-fashioned and tenderhearted costume drama “Farinelli and the King,” Claire van Kampen, a composer and academic making her playwriting debut, depicts the unlikely friendship between Philippe V of Spain (i.e. French-born King Philip V) and Italian castrato Farinelli in the 18th century.

Originally produced at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, it comes to Broadway with Oscar and three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance playing the manic-depressive king.

John Dove’s elaborate staging is stylistically similar to the Globe productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” that played Broadway four seasons ago, with a courtly atmosphere, antiquated stagecraft, onstage seating and a team of musicians using period instruments.

Philippe, who is first seen having a late-night conversation with a goldfish, is on the verge of being declared mentally unfit to continue sitting on the throne. When his wife, Isabella (Melody Grove), tries to calm him, he reacts with suspicion and violence.

Her next solution is to arrange for the world-famous opera singer Farinelli (acting by Sam Crane, singing by countertenor Iestyn Davies) to perform exclusively for Philippe.

It may contain arias from obscure Baroque operas and candlelit chandeliers, but the play is, at heart, a straightforward and sentimental “bromance,” one in which Farinelli is willing to give up adoring audiences all over Europe to serve at the king’s command. It is also a celebration of the power of music to overcome emotional and mental instability.

Rylance, who excels at playing sad and strange characters, gives a full-bodied and endearing performance that combines volatile behavior and over-the-top comedy with gentle contemplation.

As it turns out, van Kampen, who also did the musical arrangements, and Rylance are married, so it’s no wonder that “Farinelli and the King” is so specifically suited to their talents.