Olney Theatre Center The King and IBy Bob Ashby • Nov 20th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Olney Theatre Center: (Info) (Web)
Olney Mainstage, Olney, MD
Through December 29th
2:50 with intermission
Reviewed November 16th, 2013
The last of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s four greatest hits, The King and I (KAI) displays both the enduring strength and the beginnings of the limitations of the pair’s approach to musical theater. Olney’s solid, largely traditional remounting of the 1951 show showcases both the power and constraints of the R & H style.
Brilliantly conceived songs that grow from and illuminate character are the principal gift of R & H shows. KAI has one of the best, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful,” matched in the R & H canon only by Oklahoma‘s “Lonely Room” as a number that in a few brief moments tells the audience everything it needs to know about the character who sings it. If King Mongkut follows his own prescription of respecting his wives and loving his concubines, Lady Thiang, played by Janine Sunday, is the wife he most respects, and who returns that respect with deep understanding and devotion.
Not far behind as a character song is “My Lord and Master,” beautifully sung by soprano Yoongjeong Seong as Tuptim, a young girl given to the King as a gift who, with great strength and determination, remains true to her love for Lun Tha (smooth baritone Eymard Cabling). With the best voice in the show, Seong shines not only in that number but in her duets of passion and longing with Lun Tha, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Tuptim narrates “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a Thai reimagining of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that she uses as a protest against slavery and the tyranny of wicked kings. This sequence is the highlight of the Olney production, with spectacularly colorful costuming and lighting, exciting choreography, and dramatic drive all contributing to its success.
Unusually for the male lead in a musical, King Mongkut is given very little music, his role being structured for a character actor who sings a bit. In the King’s one full-length song, “A Puzzlement,” Paolo Montalban effectively expresses the difficulty of being a ruler who is supposed to have all the answers but is acutely aware that he does not. Montalban plays the role with great, almost antic energy. His Mongkut is substantially younger than many takes on the part (not to mention the historical king who, in a photo provided in Olney’s dramaturgical materials, looks something like the middle-aged Ghandi). At times this gravitas-challenged monarch comes off more like a charming, demanding adolescent than as someone who actually runs a country. He clumps about enthusiastically in “Shall We Dance” rather than transforming into a graceful dancer, consistent with his interpretation of the character if somewhat less pleasing to the eye. His relative youth and high energy level lend credibility to the unspoken sexual tension between him and Anna while making suspension of disbelief more difficult in his death scene.
Anna Leonowens (Eileen Ward), the British teacher Mongkut imports to teach English and other Western subjects to his children and wives, is responsible for the three best-known songs in the show, “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” With a warm, strong voice, she carries them off well, though the impact of “Hello, Young Lovers” is blunted by presentational staging of the “soloist sings straight out to the audience stage left, crosses and sings straight out to the audience out stage right” variety. In the other two numbers, she establishes strong relationships with the children and the King, respectively, and the choice in “Shall We Dance” to block her first verse facing away from the King before he seeks to join in the dance is a particularly good one. In this production, as in many others, Anna’s less well-known number, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” is perhaps her best, a character song expressing in an angry and humorous way her attraction to and deep frustration with the King, as well as her love for her work and the children she teaches. Ward consistently conveys the independent — almost proto-feminist — nature of this Victorian woman making her way in a strange land.
Director Mark Waldrop comments, in his interview in Olney’s “Context Guide,” that one of the challenges in casting the show was to find young actors who, playing Louis and Chulalongkorn, can take on the attributes of people who lived in such a different time. Louis (Henry Niepoetter) came off as a credible, curious and polite, Victorian boy. Chulalongkorn (Josiah Segui) seemed much more a sulky, entitled, modern American teenager. The ensemble sang and danced capably throughout, executing Tara Jeanne Valle’s energetic and flowing choreography, above all in “Small House.” The nine-member orchestra, conducted by Jenny Cartney, was flawless.
James Fouchard’s set design features three sliding or lifting panels that function as a proscenium curtain, in front of a series of arches framing a backdrop of shapely palace building outlines. The stylized ship masts and billowy sails in the opening scene were a particularly nice touch. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was common practice to write “front of curtain” scenes in which song reprises or brief crosses with a few spoken lines occupied the audience’s attention while set changes occurred behind the curtain. Waldrop’s production follows this traditional practice, which while faithful to the original script can slow the flow of the story to an extent. Dan Covey’s lighting design is mostly functional, with occasional use of rose tones in some musical numbers, though it gets more varied in “Small House.” There is probably excessive reliance on sound reinforcement for the actors, which became noticeably boomy at times.
KAI is a big costume show, and Kendra Rai’s costumes were an outstanding element of the production, with multicolored, often shiny, fabrics to catch the audience members’ eyes. The masks and character costumes in “Small House” were striking, especially the stunning black outfit worn by the villainous Simon of Legree (Aaron Komo). The hoop skirts worn by Anna and, in one scene, by the ensemble women, looked good and moved well, particularly when the royal wives, unfamiliar with this odd garment, hurried off stage with their hoops flapping high. Anna’s dress for “Shall We Dance” was lovely to behold. The wives’ daily outfits were not only colorful, but decorously revealing. In combination with the mostly bare torsos of Mongkut and Lun Tha, it is clear that this exotic East is a sexually alluring place.
In KAI, it is through Anna’s eyes, a Western gaze, that we see the colorful world of 19th century Siam. And this leads to what is the most problematic aspect of the show. While Waldrop is correct in denying, in his Olney’s “Context Guide” interview, that the show is disrespectful of its Asian characters, much of the show’s appeal stems from Anna’s or a Western audience’s ability to look from the outside at the exotic, sometimes thrilling, sometimes cute, and sometimes horrifying, culture of Mongkut’s court. Adopting Western norms becomes the sign of “progress” in the traditional Thai society. To show that he is not a “barbarian,” for example, Mongkut must put on a ball for a visiting British diplomat in which his women wear Western dresses.
As R & H’s career went forward, they became increasingly dependent upon exotic places and people. After starting with Midwestern and New England locales in Oklahoma and Carousel, respectively, R & H moved on to Oceania in South Pacific (with its seemingly “native” characters, who are actually mostly Vietnamese rather than Polynesian), San Francisco’s Chinatown (Flower Drum Song), and a sentimentalized central Europe (The Sound of Music). The lure of the exotic had some correlation with their success: their post-Carousel shows with mainstream American settings were uniformly commercial failures (Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream).
KAI also represents the clearest beginning of R & H’s dalliance with cuteness, mercifully absent from shows like Oklahoma and Carousel. Save Chulalongkorn, the children in KAI are present almost entirely to be colorfully cute. The kids in the Olney production, indeed, are cute and hit their marks consistently, but the emotional tone their scenes, as well as that of “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” is a lineal ancestor of the sticky sweetness that ultimately overwhelms The Sound of Music.
There were a large number of young people at the Saturday performance at Olney, always a gratifying sight to see. Any production that successfully introduces new generations to the great musicals of the 1940s — 1960s is a deeply welcome event. The Olney production is more than good enough to entice new audience members to come back for more and to grow to know and love these jewels of American creativity.
A little over ten years ago I directed an original musical for Princeton University’s Triangle Club. Not surprisingly, I was impressed with how very smart everyone was. (My gorgeous blond leading lady was, literally, a rocket scientist.) I was especially struck by the fact that it seemed all the students were learning to speak Chinese, “Aha!” I thought, “If the brilliant movers and shakers who devise this school’s curriculum are making Chinese a requirement, they must know something about the direction that the fortunes of the world will be heading.” Clearly, they did.
I was reminded of this when I started work on The King and I. The King’s forward-thinking desire to have his 1862 Siamese court educated in Western ideas and the English language was absolutely analogous to what I had witnessed at Princeton. And I found myself with a newly heightened appreciation for the King’s sophistication and progressiveness.
But of course, the King was trying to steer a course between the constant onslaught of change and the traditions he was bound to uphold. It’s a timeless predicament, and a great theme. This is the theme that lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II placed at the heart of this show. Yes, it required him to take artistic license with historical facts. The final scene is Hammerstein’s invention, a moving dramatization of one era giving way to the next. But it’s Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s version of this story more than any other — including multiple non-musical film versions, Margaret Landon’s book, and even Anna Leonowens’ own account — that has preserved a place for Anna and the King in the public’s affections.
It’s a pleasure for me to return to Olney Theatre Center for another holiday show and to collaborate again with choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee. She has distilled and adapted the iconic original musical staging by Jerome Robbins, adding her own distinctive point of view. As director, I have tried to honor the show’s creators by giving full value to all their story’s humor, emotion, and drama.
I hope you enjoy it.
Photos by Stan Barouh
- The King Of Siam: Paolo Montalban
- Anna Leonowens: Eileen Ward
- Lun Tha: Eymard Cabling
- The Kralahome: Alan Ariano
- Sir Edward Ramsey/Captain Orton: Ron Heneghan
- Phra Alack (The Interpreter): Ron Curameng
- Tuptim: Yoonseong Jeong
- Lady Thiang: Janine Sunday
- Angel/George: Yumiko Niimi
- Eliza: Rumi Oyama
- Simon: Aaron Komo
- Little Eva: Momoko Sugai+
- Louis (Double Cast): Ian Berlin/Henry Niepoetter
- Prince Chulalonghorn: Josiah Segui
- Adult Ensemble: Eunice Bae
- Adult Ensemble: David Gregory
- Adult Ensemble: Kimi Hugli
- Adult Ensemble: Brittany Jeffery
- Adult Ensemble: Kevin Kulp
- Adult Ensemble: Justine Moral
- Adult Ensemble: Jeffrey Wei
- Topsy (Double Cast): Kathryn Benson/Kylie Cooley
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Lucy Gibbs/Nikki Wildy
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Emma Pham/Haley Davis
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Lia Ilagan/Dulci Pham
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Nathaniel Levin/Justin Hong
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Daniel Chin/Kyle Davis
- The Royal Children(Double Cast): Aidan Levin/Oliver Wang
The Creative Team
- Director: Mark Waldrop
- Choreographer: Tara Jeanne Vallee
- Musical Director: Jenny Cartney
- Scenic Designer: James Fouchard
- Costume Designer: Kendra Rai
- Lighting Designer: Dan Covey
- Sound Designer: Jeff Dorfman
- Dialect Consultant: Lynn Watson
Disclaimer: Olney Theatre Center provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9930.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.