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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 24, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `The King and I’
The 1951 musical "The King and I" is as durable
and popular as is any of the works in the Rodgers and Hammerstein
canon. It is apt, during Rodgers’ centennial season, that there is
a lavish and exceptionally well-sung production at the Paper Mill
Playhouse. While director Mark S. Hoebee’s pedantic staging is far
from exceptional, it is likely to find favor with audiences that like
by-the-numbers revivals of popular musicals. In this day when
directors are looking to put a revisionist spin on an old show, Hoebee
seems content to rely on what we have all seen and heard before and
more or less come to expect.
Adapted from Margaret Landon’s (presumably) true-life novelization,
"Anna and the King of Siam" (at the suggestion of Gertrude
Lawrence, the great star who originated the role of Anna Leonowens
on Broadway), "The King and I" is a romanticized chronicle
of a Victorian governess who journeys to Siam to tutor at the royal
In this budget-be-damned production (the Paper Mill recently reported
a $1 million plus operating loss for the year that coincided with
the departure of Robert Johanson, its $207,548-a-year salaried
director), audiences are indeed treated to an Orientalist dream of
a spectacle. It is a shame that the gold and bejeweled settings,
designed by Michael Anania, are not able to disguise the conventional
operetta-styled production. The reliance on broad and superficial
performances does not suit this otherwise unconventionally absorbing
love story. This is a musical play that brought new maturity to the
musical stage in 1951.
Erasing memories of Lawrence and Yul Brynner’s legendary performances
isn’t easy for some of us. I hoped in vain for Carolee Carmello, as
the straitlaced widow, and Kevin Gray, as the semi-barbaric monarch,
to give us a few new insights into a show already primed to capture
our hearts. It simply doesn’t happen. Yet they nevertheless define
their roles with acceptable professional aplomb. While the eyes can’t
help but be entertained by costumer Roger Kirk’s ersatz mix of
and Victorian fashions, the ears have a harder time focusing on the
narrative, in this case given over to predominantly declamatory
Yes, the score is a delight, and it somehow seems to grow in stature
with time. The best news is that this production boasts some
singing. I would have liked Margaret Ann Gates and Paolo Montalban,
in the roles of the unhappy slave girl Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha,
respectively, a little less stiff and detached in their passion, but
their excellent voices blend blissfully in their two exquisite duets
— "We Kiss in the Shadows" and "I Have Dreamed."
Sandia Ang as Lady Thiang has a better excuse for her emotional
for the character whose plaintive "Something Wonderful"
an aria of notable impact.
Susan Kikuchi’s exotic choreography, full of B-movie kitsch, is
by an Act II processional with floats, acrobatics, and dance. Of
one can’t help but be tickled by such memorable scenes as the
of the unpredictable Siamese children, and the fantastical Jerome
Robbins’ ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." But what
a disappointment it is when the heart-pounding polka "Shall We
Dance," that is danced by Anna and the King, doesn’t provides
the musical with its greatest and most delirious feeling of sensual
pleasure. Carmello and Gray try their best to be charmers but don’t
expect to see this dance awaken their repressed sexual feelings.
Besides having a wonderful voice that fills such
as "Hello Young Lovers" and "Getting To Know You"
with an air of vibrancy, Carmello, who received accolades for her
performance on Broadway as Lucille Frank in "Parade," brings
to the role of Anna a respectable if somewhat indecisive deportment.
Having only a vague sense of Gray’s career (he replaced Lou Diamond
Phillips in the more imaginative 1996 Broadway revival), it is nice
to see this personable actor give a decidedly polished and
(thinking of Brynner) King. However, there is so much pretension in
his stances and clipped speech, that what should be perceived as an
amusing display of arrogance comes over as mostly silly. Again, what
disappoints is that he doesn’t project the spark of reckless virility
that can make the latent romance so touching. I suspect the audience,
which seemed thrilled by every note and with every gesture, had a
better time than I.
— Simon Saltzman
973-376-4343. Performances continue through May 19. $29 to $59.
It is the end of an era for the Paper Mill Playhouse,
recently re-named "Paper Mill: The State Theater of New
Robert Johanson, artistic director since 1985, leaves to return on
a free-lance basis. His last stint will be directing "My Fair
Lady," the final production of the current season.
While many of his productions, like "The Wizard of Oz," which
transferred to the Theater at Madison Square Garden and "New
which moved to the New York City Opera, helped to validate his talent
beyond the Paper Mill, some of his greatest and most lauded
particularly the star-studded Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies,"
are now legendary. Despite clunkers like "Pippin" (which
went $400,000 over budget), and some lumbering adaptation of novels
("Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights"), Johanson has
had a flair for staging operettas and classic musicals. Johanson
120 shows during his tenure, and gave the conservative and older Paper
Mill audiences what they could no longer get on Broadway. Times bring
about change, and we can only thank Johanson for the many splendid
productions over the past 17 years.
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