The King and I, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, Music by Richard Rodgers; based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Q Lim (Tuptim) and The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet; photo: Jeremy Daniels
"Indeed, I'm not your servant!"
Elena Shaddow, Baylen Thomas, Rhyees Stump; photoL Jeremy Daniels
Who would have guessed when I first saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" back in 1952 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, that I'd be seeing it again sixty-six years later, being moved in the same spots and finally understanding the title. I always knew who the "King" was, but "I" seemed a bit pat, a little too obviously Anna Leonowens, the British schoolteacher working in his court. This time around (and I have seen it often in the intervening years) director Bartlett Sher has made it clear that the I in the title refers not to one woman but to three of them equally. Nothing has been changed in the script and the show looks a lot like it always has looked, but the focus in this wonderful production is on the three women who interact with the man at the center of their world.
Anna and her son Louis come to Bangkok by ship from Singapore and their entrance is grand and glorious as she teaches her son not to be afraid, or at least how to mask it. The tactic is strong and starts the show off with one of its eight major hit songs but the act described fails them both in short order as they meet the Kralahome, the King's Henchman.
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote that song, "I Whistle a Happy Tune," for Mary Martin who had starred in their third big hit show, "South Pacific" but she was not fated to sing it even though she brought Yul Brynner into the project (they had worked together on Broadway in the play "Lute Song"). Gertrude Lawrence fully embodied the role of Anna; she died playing the role in that original production. Later Constance Towers made it her own, still playing opposite Brynner. Now the part seems to belong to Elena Shaddow who - in spite of her last name - is a very strong and vivid presence in the part. She is gorgeous, possesses a voice to match her looks and an acting acumen that registers emotions and reactions without ever straining or stressing. She is the complete leading lady package in this show without a "leading man" but only an opposing force. What Shaddow adds to the role is the certainty of being right and acting correctly in achieving her goal. When the King forces her hand compelling her obedience to custom there is nothing funny, sly or awkward in her acquiesence; she is merely living to her own standards and completing her mission for understanding and equality. She is "I."
Joan Almedilla; photo: Jeremy Daniels
Likewise Lady Thiang, number one wife of the King, comes across in this production as the second leg of the triangle "I" as played by Joan Almedilla. Mother of the crown prince of Siam, Lady Thiang brings compassion and unrivalled love into the picture frame provided by set designer Michael Yeargan. Almedilla has beauty, warmth and stamina on her side in the role of a wife overlooked for other women, legitimate wives, concubines and slaves who serve the King. She is a wife who never forgets her place, nor her position in the household. She is loyal, resilient and resourceful. She is a friend to Anna whose presence she understands in relationship to her husband's global need, and a friend to Tuptim whom she despises for loving elsewhere. This Lady Thiang is more than just a loyal wife, she is a loyal nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, friend, lover, wife and willing slave to the man she adores. Though the story is not hers, without her there is no story to tell for she motivates both Anna and the King to action when it is needed.
When Almedilla sings the show's anthem "Something Wonderful" she is singing not just about the man she married, she is singing about a culture that the King wishes to maintain while at the same time changing it. There is a tone of marvel in her voice as she sings the best anthem lyric Hammerstein ever wrote, and his history of anthems goes back to 1927's "Show Boat" for which he wrote two such songs. When Almedilla and Shaddow have scenes together it is hard to keep your attention on either of them; your eyes move as rapidly as the dialogue for you sense instantly that there is rapport and the game of cat-and-mouse going on concurrently. She is "I."
Surprises come in diminutive packages at times.
Q Lim; photo: Jeremy Daniels
The actress Q Lim plays the Burmese princess given as a slave to the King, Tuptim. The King likes her; "He Is Pleased With Me" she sings, and he makes her his new mistress-in-chief. Unfortunately she is in love with the Burmese scholar who delivered her to the court of Siam, Lun-Tha, played by Kavin Panmeechao. Together they get to sing two of the great R&H duets, "We Kiss In a Shadow" (which is actually amusing here as they are aided and abetted by Ms. Shaddow playing Anna) and "I Have Dreamed" in which they fully realize the passion that is their undoing. Often played with an odd assertiveness, in this production Lim gives the role an honesty that is heartbreaking to hear. Her Tuptim never has the full strength to act, but only the momentary flair that allows her to attempt things. She brings out the delicacy of the slave's soul and removes the assertiveness that would have her forge a younger Lady Thiang. Instead she is the emotional opposite of the wife she has displaced. Whenever she is on stage you are mesmerized by this delicacy. She is "I."
The man Tuptim loves and ruins herself for is usually a lyrical singer with a beautiful high baritone voice that sends chills through your nerves, but sadly this is not the case for Mr. Panmechao. His voice is strained and rough and doesn't provide the musical counterpoint to Ms. Lim's sweet tones.
Jose Llana and Elena Shaddow; photo: Jeremy Daniels
Jerome Robbins original choreography has been restored and enriched by Christopher Gatelli who does lovely work in the ballet, in the schoolroom fan dance and in several transition scenes. Catherine Zuber's beautiful costumes are also in the replica school but fresh and pretty and even the men look as though the Saville Row tailors whipped up some nifty Siamese outfits, all high quality. Donald Holder's lighting design works miracles on the large stage at Proctors and Scott Lehrer's sound work was true to the singers and actors at all times while providing the occasional offstage effect neatly. The seventeen man orchestra produced the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations beautifully under the baton of Gerald Steichen.
The entire company gave near perfect performances, most particularly Brian Rivera as the Kralahome, Charlie Oh as Prince Chulalongkorn, Keira Bell Young as Princess Ying Yaowalak, Baylen Thomas as both Captain Orton and Lord Edward Ramsey and Darren Lee as Phra Alack.
Three "I"s take a special King. Jose Llana creates a King unlike Brynner's original creation. This is a man whose harshness is only supplanted by two other emotions throughout the production. His lack of certainty about his own knowledge and understanding of the world is played with aching subtlety as he pronounces his mishaps in the song "Is a Puzzlement." His gruffness with women over whom he has eminent domain moves into sensuality in the song "Shall We Dance," when his awkward attempts at the western forms becomes a seduction as he assumes a European pose for the first time. The humanizing of the man as Llana plays him in these two scenes is closer to Brynner than is the very unmoved and unfeeling man who demands fealty from all, including the European woman he attempts to control. While it disturbed me, his interpretation of the character seemed ultimately so right for the time period of the play that I wondered, as I wandered out of the theater, why I had never seen this dichotomy so clearly played before. It is a great thing when something as familiar as this musical suddenly moves into a different, more revealing light.
You might have gathered that I liked this production. Well, I did. I heartily reccomend it.
The King and I plays at Proctors, 432 Main Street, Schenectady, NY through May 6. For information and tickets go on line to proctors.org or contact the box office at 518-346-6204.