The King and I, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Music by Richard Rodgers; based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon; directed by Karla Shook.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Kelsey Self, Lisa Franklin, Colleen Gallagher and Andrew Hasegawa; photo: provided
Anna and the King (Gallagher and Hasegawa; photo: provided
"Shall I tell you what I think of you?"
The 1950-51 Broadway season was extraordinary. Two of its opposite anchors are playing in the region right now: November 1950's "Guys and Dolls" by Frank Loesser in a brilliant revival at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and now March 1951's "The King and I" is proving to be a miracle of revival staging in the round at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York. It makes you stop and wonder what came about during the months between them. Well, here’s a basic rundown: Irving Berlin’s Ethel Merman smash hit "Call Me Madam" and Cole Porter’s next to last stage show "Out of This World." Lerner and Loewe’s "Paint Your Wagon" was waiting in the wings along with Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’ "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Leonard Bernstein’s "Peter Pan" completes the snapshot. Not a bad season and those were just the big hits.
Where "Guys and Dolls" gives us Broadway cartoon characters brilliantly defined in movement, lyrics and tunes, the same three elements are at work in the dramatic "King and I" as truly different cultures clash, morality is challenged on every level and romance never rears its cartoon head unless you believe that a barbarian king with 77 children (he hasn’t been married very long) could fall in love, a concept he doesn’t grasp, with a middle-aged Welsh widow. In just under three hours these two people play out a love story that has very little sex in it but instead presents a picture of adults coming to grips with differences and learning to love one another for those qualities that breed understanding instead of kids 78 through 90.
The Mac-Haydn production is beautiful with superb costumes by Jimm Halliday, colorful and evocative lighting by Andrew Gmoser and lushly precise choreography by director Karla Shook. Shook shines in the "Shall We Dance" polka and the choreographed movement of young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, played to perfection by Joshua Phan-Gruber and Kelsey Self. Even without a wall of shadows in which to hide, they create that sense of furtive romanticism which excites the blood. Mario Martinez has beautifully choreographed the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet.
Colleen Gallagher takes on the difficult role of Anna Leonowens, the teacher imported to westernize the King’s children and educate them. She sings beautifully, presents a complex emotional character with directness and transforms into a lush and sensual woman by the end of the show. Tall, and imposing, she handles everything but the comedy to perfection. She could almost not be better.
The King of Siam is played by traveling "King of Siam" portrayer Andrew Hasegawa. Since completing twenty years as a dentist, this actor has made the role of The King his personal possession, apparently, even performing it at this theater in 2004. He plays the part very well. He should.
Lady Thiang, the number one wife, is brought to life by the acting and singing of Lisa Franklin who helps tear out your heart with her sensitive portrait of a wife who loves in the western way without knowing how to do so. As her son, Prince Chulalungkorn Joey LaBrasca is a pure delight, his reactions to bad news as real as his boyish charm. Louis Leonowens was played by George Franklin and he was believable as a good kid. Jelani Alladin played The Kralahome, the King’s major domo, very straight and hard and he pulled off an interesting characterization doing just that.
Scott Wasserman was fine as Sir Edward Ramsey and Andy Geary handled his chores as Captain Orton without a hitch.
Shook, as director and choreographer, exhibited an excellent eye for detail and a nice sense of clean lines of visibility, a major step over her work in years past. She shows herself in this production to have a fine future on the other side of the footlights bringing large shows into harbor safely and securely. Her dancers in the H. B. Stowe ballet, quite naturally, assisted her ably in bringing off this clever, funny and very touching piece. Particularly notable were Amanda Myers as Eliza, Corey Masklee as Uncle Thomas, and Andy Geary as George/the Angel.
This show actually had me in tears for a good part of the second act - by far the best work by the company and the director takes place in the second act. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finest work may be found in this show, not one lyric or piece of music is "pure Broadway" or poorly constructed in any way. Each piece is perfect for its moment. Not as integrated a score as Frank Loesser’s is for "Guys and Dolls" it is still wonderful to watch a show in which the songs do their thing and do it well and the book scenes take care of the rest.
The King and I plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 north of Chatham, NY through July 3. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.