Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The King And I"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Larry Stark

"The King and I"

Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Richard Rodgers

Directed by Stacey Stephens
Musical Director Steven Hemingway
Choreography by Samantha Brior Jones

Set & Costume Design by Stacey Stephens
Lighting Design by John Cuff
Sound Design by Mockingbird Studios
Hair & Makeup Design by Atia & Dan Gravely
Props by Amanda Baker
Dialect Coach Dani Duggan
Executive Producer Meg Fofonoff
Associate Producers Caryl Cochrane & Sarah Horton
Technical Director Nate Paoletta
Stage Manager Michael Costello

Mrs. Anna.............Jennifer Mischley
King Mongkut............Michael Lemieux
Lady Thiang..............Katrina Shinay
Kralahome................Chris Caggiano
Tuptim................Mala Bhattacharya
Lun Tha.....................David Costa
Louis.......................Sean Gearin
Chululongkorn............Benjamin Hirsh
Captain Orton/Sir Edward....Bob Parsins
Interpreter...Nick Laroche, Dan Gravely

Atia Gravely, Lina Cohn, Hannah Cohn, Nina Lupan, Samantha Luo, Kara Moulter, Julia Nagle

The King's Children
Abigail Kopel, Emily Paley, Sasha Gardner, Isabelle Carr, Petal Carr, Jamie Winn, Lauren Winn, Kathryn Luo, Julia Shapiro, Andrew Purdy, Savannah Horton, Haley Horton

Piano.......Steven K. Hemingway
Bass................Ryan Foster
Cello...............Joanne Osky
Viola..........Colleen Hamilton
Violin.........Shannon Robinson
Violin..............Lisa Bolger
Oboe...............Leah Daniels
Flute............Julie Asztalos
Bassoon..............Alex Amann
Trombone.......Taylor Hartstein
Horn................Liz Mediche
Trumpet...........Callie Parker
Conductor...Steven K. Hemingway

Richard Rodgers' music dominated Broadway for decades; when I saw "The King and I" for the first time (circa 1952)it was one of Five of his musicals still running. But, seeing it again in a lyrical, colorful, solidly effective production directed by Stacey Stephens for Norwood's Fiddlehead Theatre, what I noticed most was the work of his verbal collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II. Some songs, in this carefully crafted production, emerged almost as though I had never heard them before.

Hammerstein --- first in "Show Boat" with Jerome Kern's music and then with Rodgers in "Oklahoma!" --- can be credited with re-making the American musical, from a string of great "numbers" to an integrated whole. In fact, to me the first act of "The King and I" is almost a textbook on how to go about it. The first four songs follow a cue-then-number form: when asked "aren't you afraid?" the new teacher from England admits yes, but "I Whistle A Happy Tune". When a Burmese beauty is given as a "present" to the King, she sings of "My Lord And Master". When Anna sees the girl loves someone else, she muses on her own remembered love with "Hello Young Lovers". And when met with a selection of the King's 67 children her job becomes "Getting to Know You". Throughout all this, each cue-plus-song is a separate block of information, illustration, background, exposition, scene-setting --- a basic brick of plot to be used, built upon later.

The next four songs illustrate the conflicts: The King, wrestling alone with foreign affairs as an absolute ruler of a small country emerging from isolation, expresses his own doubts and indecisions in "Is A Puzzlement!" Then his "present" and her beloved pledge their dangerous secret love with "We Kiss in A Shadow". And Anna, seething at the autocrat's indifference rips off a scathing soliloquy "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?!?" only to be contradicted by the King's first wife who, admitting his flaws, insists he often surprises by saying or doing "Something Wonderful!"

None of these are cue/number songs. They rise out of character and conflict. They advance the plot, illustrate people's impulses and desires and contradictions. Suddenly the show has stopped looking at the oddities of Siam from the outside; it has gotten inside the skins of people it is easy to care about, exposed their emotions, and their comprehensible interactions, for good or ill, have been sent racing toward resolutions. Instead of a simple framework on which to hang songs and dances (think of "Anything Goes"), this musical has a plot; it is About Something.

For a mere fabricator of frothy entertainments, Oscar Hammerstein had a surprising social conscience. Much of his "Show Boat" denounces Segregation. In "South Pacific" he insists "you have to be carefully taught to hate and fear." "Carousel" is about pride and poverty so fierce as to drive a man to theft, and the class prejudice that results.

His villains (remember "Poor Judd"?) are, if not lovable, or excusable, usually complicated, and this King of Siam is again a textbook example. He is a comfortable autocrat, an absolute ruler who IS his country and whose slightest whim is never questioned. Following him, his children object to "scientific geography" because it makes Siam so small. In some ways, for them and for him, Siam is their whole world. But more modern countries have offered "to protect me out of everything I own" and he uses a widowed English schoolmarm to educate his kids about their wider world: if he himself cannot join that world, his children must.

Producer Meg Fofonoff and Director Stacy Stephens have been blessed with an intelligent, concentrated cast of thirty-one performers each of which seems to live the part. At the act-one introduction of a whole dozen children of all sorts and sizes, ritual formality in this rigid society is rigidly maintained. Seven Wives and a pair of guards are all less the standard "parts of the scenery" than real representatives of a society.

The people of the plot, of course, break into pairs --- Anna's son (Sean Gearin) and the King's heir apparent (Benjamin Hirsh) represent their separate worlds. David Costa and Mala Bhattacharya are luminously in a love despite danger and doom. Chris Caggiano as a haughty prime minister and Katrina Shinay, with her lovely voice, as the King's first wife have the big jobs of illustrating Siamese rigidity and softening the rigid portrait of the King. There is Bob Parsons, coming on early in act one and late in act two as two perfect examples of Queen Victoria's England, and Jordan L. Greely, as a Siamese interpreter of words rather than sense.

But it's Anna and the King that make the musical move, and Jennifer Mischley and Michael Lemieux interact with sublime understanding. At their first contact, the King's slow, powerful stalk all around this kneeling, hoop-skirted Englishwoman is eloquently silent. The way she reacts when her unfinished sentences are bitten in two by an autocrat's indifferent dismissal is equally bristling with subtext. Their journey from indiference to understanding to cooperation and final fondness is always interesting, illuminating, and achingly human.

There are two major set-piece scenes in act two, the first a highly stylized oriental dance-interpretation of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (by Harriet Beecher Stowe). Samantha Brior Jones has created an angular barefoot-ballet with masks, stylized movement, and a plot boiled down to minimal essentials. It's unfortunate that the dancers are not identified in the program. The second set-piece, sadly, is the death of the King. For Hammerstein, life might not be fair, but it's always true.

Everything here takes place before two full-stage drop-curtain paintings --- one of the seaport with Chinese junks, the other a green Siamese landscape studded with round, gilded temple-spires --- with panels and John Cuff's lights defining spaces in the royal palace. The sets and sumptuous costumes, both Oriental and Victorian, are lyrically eloquent in themselves.

I had only two small objections. One is a short prayer in which the Siamese King calls on the Buddha as though he were that omnipotent benevolent helper Christians pray to, rather than The Enlightened Teacher. I know, about this the company can do nothing. But the other complaint I had was that Musical Director Steven Hemingway, after pulling sublime singing out of the cast, got jarringly off-key noise out of the orchestra. It would be better to cut the overtures to both acts rather than have them played so badly.

This is The Fiddlehead's tenth anniversary, and Stacey Stephens and Producer Meg Fofonoff, with her assocates Caryl Cochrane and Sarah Horton can be justly proud of this stunning re-creation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show I dimly remember seeing some 54 years ago. Thank you.
Thank you All!

( a k a larry stark )

"The King & I" (13 - 22 October)
109 Central Street, NORWOOD MA
1 (781)762-0528

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide