Corrections or additions?

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

adventurous

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

court.

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

artistic

director), audiences are indeed treated to an Orientalist dream of

a spectacle. It is a shame that the gold and bejeweled settings,

arrestingly

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

Oriental

and Victorian fashions, the ears have a harder time focusing on the

narrative, in this case given over to predominantly declamatory

pronouncements.

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

extraordinary

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

restraint

for the character whose plaintive "Something Wonderful"

remains

an aria of notable impact.

Susan Kikuchi’s exotic choreography, full of B-movie kitsch, is

highlighted

by an Act II processional with floats, acrobatics, and dance. Of

course,

one can’t help but be tickled by such memorable scenes as the

presentation

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

treasures

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

non-imitative

(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

The King and I, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive,

Millburn,

973-376-4343. Performances continue through May 19. $29 to $59.

Johanson Exits

It is the end of an era for the Paper Mill Playhouse,

recently re-named "Paper Mill: The State Theater of New

Jersey."

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

Moon"

which moved to the New York City Opera, helped to validate his talent

beyond the Paper Mill, some of his greatest and most lauded

productions,

particularly the star-studded Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies,"

are now legendary. Despite clunkers like "Pippin" (which

reportedly

went $400,000 over budget), and some lumbering adaptation of novels

("Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights"), Johanson has

always

had a flair for staging operettas and classic musicals. Johanson

directed

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.

— S.S.


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