Reviewed by Tony Annicone
Theatre-by-the-Sea's latest show is the classic 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King & I", one of the duos best works. Based on a true story about English school teacher, Anna Leonowens and her 7 years spent in Siam, this story is as fresh and meaningful to contemporary audiences as it was originally in "Anna & the King of Siam". It shows the difference of two cultures told amid the backdrop of the Orient. It also makes a strong statement about a woman's place in a male dominated society of the 1860's and by using starcrossed lovers, it shows the evilness of slavery. From start to finish this show is a true masterpiece of American musical theatre and this production is a shining example of a Broadway caliber presentation in Rhode Island.
Director Judith Swift breathes new life into this show with her insightful direction and blocking of her 35 member cast. She makes the dramatic and comic moments stand out and her strong hand is seen throughout the performance. Pathos is the measuring stick of "The King & I". This audience was moved to tears, making this show a success with its outstanding acting, singing and dancing propelling the crowd to their feet at the show's conclusion. Brava. Musical director, Tom Hojnacki is superb with leading his orchestra, playing the keyboard and especially in his making the musical numbers sound gorgeous. The singers could be heard clearly with the beautiful music in the background. The empathy or comedy towards the solos, duets or group numbers comes pouring forth due to Tom's expertise. Assistant musical director, Karl Shymanovitz not only plays the other keyboard in the mainstage show, he directs the music for the Cabaret after the show. Only 20 years old, Karl is not only skillful at the piano, but he is adept at comic routines, too. A very talented young man who will go far in this business. (Karl is assistant musical director for all the shows this season. I accidentally omitted this from my other reviews. Oops!) Jena Barrette displays her insightful choreography throughout with a fantastic rendition of Uncle Thomas' ballet scene. This long dancing segment is kept fresh with the powerful ballet steps including ice skating and a dog chase segment. Jena also choreographs the energetic polka, "Shall We Dance", the fan dance and the procession scene. A very impressive skill, Jena uses, is the wonderful Oriental hand gestures utilized by the cast. The perfect blending of director, music director and choreographer shows the proper way a musical should be.
The two leads do outstanding work in their huge roles. Luann Aronson steals the audience's heart the moment she enters the first scene as Mrs. Anna. From her splendid British accent to her beautiful singing voice to her unbelievable acting prowess, Luann makes you laugh or cry in all the right places. She delivers her songs with ease including "Whistle A Happy Tune", (to bolster her son's courage) "Getting To Know You", ( while doing a fan dance near the end of it) "Hello Young Lovers", ( a poignant song about her late husband and her inclusion of Tuptim in the delivery adds depth to the lyrics) "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You, (a comic gem with her throwing herself around the stage in her petticoat while berating the King with her lyrics) and "Shall We Dance" ( a powerful and fun number to show the depth of Anna's relationship with the King) The closing scene of Act I where Anna keeps her head below the King's is wonderfully done as are her argument scenes especially the whipping scene. Luann also tugs at your heartstrings while reading the dying King's letter and in the closing scene with the children and at the death of the King. The curtsey to the new king is a nice finish to the show and it invokes many tears from one and all. Thom Sesma makes the King, a multidimensional character, adding a human element in a usually hard and unbending role. This gives the character more depth than a Yul Brynner act alike. Thom with a full head of hair delivers his lines perfectly and interacts with the other characters easily. His song "A Puzzlement" shows how even a King needs to question himself every now and then. It also gives the King a chance to show his relationship with the crown prince. Thom's dance number with Luann is splendid and is a huge crowd pleaser. He handles the angry moments like a pro especially the whipping scene where he builds to a level of intensity before he breaks down. His Moses scene shows his comic timing and his death scene is magnificent, filled with the right amount of pathos. Great job by the two leads.
Nina Negri as Lady Thiang has a phenomenal voice. Her majestic delivery of "Something Wonderful" is breathtaking. The words and music move Anna to return to the King. Nina gives the role of the head wife the necessary backbone to stand up to Tuptim and to convince Anna to stay in Siam. She also sings the difficult "Small House" segment and the comic "Western People Funny" (about the difficulties of wearing British dresses and high heels in Siam) Nina acts as well as she sings. She shows great compassion when she comforts the Prince before his father's death. Nina is also a powerful Cabaret performer, delivering a gorgeous rendition of "Summertime".
The two young lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha are played by Maryann Wu and Gerard Salvador who act beautifully in their roles. Maryann gives Tuptim, the strength she needs to live in a foreign country as a worthless slave and concubine. Her character writes a story about the evils of slavery in America and adapts it to apply to her situation in Siam. Maryann sings her contempt for the King in "My Lord and Master" and she narrates the ballet scene wonderfully leading the others to glare at her when she verbally attacks the King. She and Gerard have two of the prettiest ballads in the show, "We Kiss in a Shadow"(loved the gliss at the end of the song) and "I Have Dreamed". Both numbers are about their unrequited love for each other. The love match is doomed but both young performers have you rooting for them to win against all odds.
The two young boys who play the Prince and Louis are James Olerio and Tristan Viner-Brown. They do excellent acting work in their roles and they move around the stage like veteran performers. James is 13 years old and plays the younger version of the future king who has been influenced by his school teacher. He delivers his lines with the regal bearing the role needs(a very impressive entrance in the March song) and he has great interactions with the King, Anna, his mother and Louis. James and Tristan do a superb job on the reprise of "A Puzzlement", where they wonder why adults act the way they do. Tristan has a perfect British accent as Louis, sings the opening number wonderfully Luann and is very natural in the role of Mrs. Anna's son. Two very talented boys who are destined for a future in show biz. The menancing Kralahome is played by Orville Mendoza. He shows his loyalty to the king and delivers a strong performance as his right hand man. (Orville shows his singing voice offin the cabaret with Elton John's "Rocket Man") The friendly, protective Captain Orton, Jimmy Carroll who is this year's cabaret emcee and Anna's old friend, Sir Edward Ramsey, Tony Wichowski (who brings his usual comic touch to this character) play other roles in the show inclucing two eunuchs. Both men are excellent character actors and make the most of any and all parts they play. (Tony shows off his voice in the cabaret in a duet, "Nothing Without Me"from "City Of Angels" with John Raterman and in a trio with John and Nina in a song from "Ragtime". Tony leaves in two weeks for a ten month tour of "Ragtime". Best wishes!)
Rounding out the multitalented cast are Lou Castro,( the fantastic Simon of Legree dancer who can leap around the stage like a whirling dervish while executing complicated dance steps at the same time) Danielle Dufore-Garcia, (the fan dancer who used the children as the hoop skirt) Edward Matias, (the interpretor who gets kicked by the Kralahome, also shows his tenor voice off in "Lost in the Wilderness" in cabaret) John Raterman, ( the whipping guard in the show, also a fantastic tenor who sings "Not While I'm Around" from "Sweeney Todd" invoking tears with his dynamic rendition plus the duet and trio numbers) Paul Ashley, Charly Seamon( she and Paul do a risque song about "Popcorn" in the cabaret with his feeing her boob while holding the popcorn bag for her. It's a hoot and both of them have great voices and excellent comic timing, too) Vaness McMahan, Nick Pramik, Esme Sammons, Robert Spring, Suzannah Taylor, (who sings a funny song about her optomitrist) Natalie Weld, ( as Eliza dances up a storm in the long ballet scene while being pursued by Simon, his men and dogs. She also does a comic turn in the "Western People Funny" scene continually tripping on her dress and hoop skirt) and as the Royal children are Marnee Carpenter, Katie Cavaliere, Bridget Chappell, Christopher Chianesi, Casey Anne Cook, Julia De Moranville, William Furcolo, Ben Leatham, Morgan-Kate Mc Laughlin, Alura May Plante, Robert Louis Rice and Rhiannon Cantwell Smith. A word of praise to the children who delivered the goods with their performance in "March of the Siamese Children" (getting many laughs) "Getting to Know You", the prayer to Buddha scene and the death of the king scene by staying in character at all times. Additional praise for fabulous sets (the palace is outstanding) that are moved on and off easily and are designed by Jeff Modereger, the colorful, beautiful costumes by Marcia Zammarelli with the King and Anna's costumes designed by David T. Howard. (Loved Anna's hoop skirts especially the lavender ballgown) the brilliant lighting to set the mood by Kenton Yeager and the sound designer for the show and cabaret, Walter Trarbach who sings a hysterical "South of the Border" in the cabaret. Kudos to producers Laura, Renny, Marcy and everyone who makes "The King & I" the must see show of the summer at Theatre-by-the-Sea.