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Monday, November 18, 2013

‘The King and I’ at Olney is Worth Getting to Know, etc., etc., etc.

Photos: Stan Barough
The classic musical Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I concludes the Olney Theatre Center’s memorable 75th season, and under the direction of Mark Waldrop, this rendition is clearly worth seeing. Based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Lan, the original production opened on Broadway in 1951 and spawned countless revivals, national tours plus a hit movie, garnering bushels full of awards and accolades along the journey.  It is arguably one of the most popular musicals of all time.  
Set in 1862 Siam (the former name of Thailand), The King and I tells the true moving account of a young English widow Anna Leonowens and her son Louis who travel to tutor the King’s many children and tries to open their eyes to a world beyond Siam. While there, she encounters an unfamiliar world full of majestic beauty, but seemingly stifled by Old World traditions.  

Anna finds the King to be rigid beyond imagination, authoritative, and demanding that all his subjects including his multiple wives and children kowtow to him so that their heads must not rise above his even if it means they lay face down on the floor to bow.  He also reflects 19th century attitudes towards women to the point where he cannot bring himself to obtain advice from them.
As the King (based on the actual King Mongkut) eventually decides how to bring his country into a new age and resist the charge that he is a barbarian, a reputation that provokes English leaders to consider taking over Siam as a protectorate, he and Anna begin to see beyond traditions and prejudices into what makes people special and what makes a man a true king.

Embedded within the production is the play “Small House of Uncle Thomas” that is performed to impress the visiting representative from the British government who visits Siam to evaluate the situation.  With its strong anti-slavery message, the play, fittingly narrated by the Burmese slave Tuptim (played by Yoonjeong Seong), is presented in a Siamese ballet-inspired dance that is performed beautifully onstage. 
The thrust of the production, however, centers on the up and down relationship that is forming between Anna (Eileen Ward) and the King (Paulo Montalban), and that’s where The King and I flourishes. 

I can’t help but connect this storyline to another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece: The Sound of Music, produced eight years later.  It contained similar themes, in that a woman invited by an authoritative father to take care of his adorable brood, became disrespected by the despotic master of the house and then grows closer to him with a changing world as a backdrop and a brilliant score to tell the story.  As in the case of The Sound of Music, The King and I is immortal.
A stunningly vivid mounting of this musical at Olney is amplified by outstanding acting and vocals, Broadway-caliber sets and costumes and flawless orchestration.  Directed by Mark Waldrop who helmed such excellent productions at Olney as Annie, The Sound of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors, the leads and ensemble charm you to pieces while one memorable song after another from the lush Rodgers and Hammerstein score keeps you humming.

In this production, Paolo Montalban stars as the King of Siam. While he is best known for playing the Prince in the ABC/Disney TV movie, Cinderella, Mr. Montalban’s credits also include other Broadway productions, such as the role of Lun Tha in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of The King and I as well as various television and movie roles.
Here he is as much king of the stage as the king he portrayed.  Demonstrating a powerful, authoritative speaking voice throughout, he masterfully galvanized the plot.  His clenched fists resting on his hips and his darting paces and movements onstage, Mr. Montalban is a commanding force and is reminiscent of the iconic poses that made Yul Brynner so endearing to audiences.

Eileen Ward as Anna is equally brilliant as the King’s foil. Exhibiting a wide range of emotions throughout, from tranquility and kindness to resignation to determination to utter anger then ultimately love, Ms. Ward was the perfect complement to Mr. Montalban’s King.
Paolo Montalban (as The King) and Eileen Ward (as Anna) 
As strong as her acting is, Ms. Ward’s musical performances soar even higher.  Demonstrating a potent soprano voice, she performs those classic songs in the score with the ease that can only emanate from a talented vocalist.  “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, and the very popular song “Getting to Know You”, the latter sung to the cute children, were delivered beautifully.  And, of course, the magnificent upbeat number “Shall We Dance?” in the second act with both Ms. Ward and Mr. Montalban gliding around the palace’s big room is undeniably memorable.

Angry that the King broke his promise to allow Anna and her son Louis (played by Henry Niepoetter in this reviewed performance) to live in their own house rather than in the palace, Ms. Ward effectively displays the appropriate amount of vexation in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”—still hitting each note perfectly while enraged.  That’s no small trick.
Another standout is YoonJeong Seong as Tuptim who is a slave brought from nearby Burma to be one of the King’s junior wives.  Petite as she may be, she commands a big soprano voice demonstrated in “My Lord and Master” and “I Have Dreamed”—a duet with her secret love, Lun Tha, played effectively by Eymard Cabling.  But Ms. Seong’s heart-wrenching duet with Mr. Cabling in “We Kiss in a Shadow” is guaranteed to dampen your eyes a bit.  Their love, secretive and pure, sadly does not end well.

The remainder of the cast and ensemble are exemplary.  Notably among them are Alan Ariano as The Kralahome who is the King’s Prime Ministrer, Ron Heneghan playing the dual roles of Captain Orton and Sir Edward, Janine Sunday as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife and who excels in the song “Something Wonderful” and young Josiah Segui who plays Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne.  Also, the graceful Rumi Oyama who plays Eliza in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet is excellent.
Overall, the performers deserve the highest of marks for their acting, singing and dancing (choreographed expertly by Tara Jeanne Vallee) as does the outstanding nine-piece orchestra led by conductor Jenny Cartney.

Although at times the sound during dialogues appeared to be uneven from the mic’d performers, (and that I hope that this minor problem will be resolved as the show progresses through its run), the creative team is stellar.
Veteran scenic designer James Fouchard did a masterful job in creating a gorgeous palatial set, complete with arches and columns to add depth, marble-like tile floors and oriental screens for scene changes.  The lighting effects, designed by Dan Covey, amplify the elegant staging.

And among the show’s highlights are the dazzling costumes designed by Kendra Rai, making her Olney debut.  The cast and ensemble were fitted in staggeringly colorful and detailed period Southeast Asian attire, adding to the magnificent visual aspects of the production. 
The King and I at Olney is an outstanding iteration of this iconic musical, and the theatre’s 75th season is punctuated by a triumphant production.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

The King and I plays through December 29 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD 20832.  To purchase tickets, click here or call 301-924-3400.

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