Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2004
I knew that I had reviewed a previous production of The King and I at the Mac-Haydn many years ago, and that I had had some problems with it. Looking back at my review from 1998, I see that it was the first show I ever reviewed at the Mac, and that I hated it with a passion. Its amazing they ever let me back in the doors!
I am happy to report that this current production resolves all the issues I had six years ago. This is a handsome and heart-warming rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 opus, a fine conclusion to the Mac-Haydn’s 2004 season. In 1998 I felt the company either didn’t have or hadn’t invested enough resources to give this show its due. This time around they have invested wisely in talent, costumes, and props to make this a professional and entertaining production.
The key to any good production of The King and I are suitable actors for the leading roles. Monica M. Wemitt claims Anna Leonowens as her favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine, and it is easy to see why. Wemitt is old enough and wise enough to bring this proud and complicated lady to life. Her portrayal of Anna’s devotion to her late husband Tom is deeply moving, as is her rendering of the slowly developing admiration and respect she and the King develop for one another.
Andrew Hasegawa is a retired dentist of oriental descent who now has a second career playing the King of Siam. He claims to enjoy it very much, and his enjoyment is evident. Perhaps he misses a bit of the King’s fire in the beginning, but he is certainly endearing. I shed a few tears at his death scene at the end of the play.
I was fascinated to learn a little bit about the real King Mongkut or Rama IV, who was born in 1804 and ruled what was then known as Siam from 1851 until his death in 1868 at age 64. He ascended the throne at 47, after spending 27 years as a Buddhist monk. By the time he took the throne he was already proficient in Thai, Mon, Latin, and English. He was a self-taught astronomer and mathematician of some renown. In 1852, 28 years before the British established Greenwich Mean Time, King Mongkut had a clock tower built within the compound of the Grand Palace, to establish the standard time of the country, which he calculated using his knowledge of the position of the stars. He set up printing presses, built roads and canals, and issued the first modern currency to meet the requirements of his country's expanded trade. He reformed the administration, installed foreign advisers in government departments, called in European officers to improve the army, and organized a police force.
It is no wonder that the writings of Anna Leonowens, and all the novels, theatrical productions and films based on it, are banned in Thailand for their inaccurate portrayal of this brilliant and fascinating man.
Anna Harriette Crawford Leonowens (1834-1914/15), a widow who had established a school in Singapore, was brought to the court of King Mongkut in 1862 to teach the King’s wives and children English with the caveat that she not instruct them in the Christian faith, as the previous teachers, all missionaries, had done. She left the court the year before the King died and shortly thereafter published two volumes of memoirs about her experiences. Later in life she moved to Canada, where she became involved in education and in women's issues. She was a key organizer of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
In 1940 Margaret Landon wrote a novel “Anna and the King of Siam” based on Leonowens’ writings, and it is on this fictionalized account that Oscar Hammerstein based his libretto for The King and I.
Prince Chululongkorn (1853-1910), one of Leonowens principal students, succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 15, and was another exemplary and forward thinking leader for the country. Hammerstein has created a fascinating character in the crown prince, and the role is shared by brothers Adam and Tyler Stanton. I saw young Tyler in the role and was impressed with his stage presence and clear understanding of a young man struggling to come of age and come to grips with the heavy burden of the monarchy which he knows he soon must bear. Stanton is about the same age as the real Chululongkorn would have been while under Leonowens’ tutelage, and he interacted nicely with Charles Franklin, the talented young actor I saw portray Anna’s son Lewis, a role he shares with Darrin French. Their reprise of the King’s solo A Puzzlement was nicely sung.
One of the nice things about following the work of a real company like the Mac-Haydn is seeing performers tackle a variety of roles in one season, or over the course of many. Karla Shook has literally grown up at the Mac, and always shines in bouncy, sassy roles. But here she follows her subdued and charming portrayal of Charity Barnum with a modest and vocally strong turn as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and mother of Chululongkorn. Hard to believe it’s the same girl who twirled her tassles in Gypsy a few months ago!
The story of two adults from different cultures coming together for the good of a nation, whether based on truth or fiction, is an intriguing one but not a romantic one. Hammerstein felt compelled to toss in a love story, and so the brief sub-plot of the Burmese lovers Tuptim (Katie Kuhlenschmidt) and Lun Tha (Chad Heuschober) is introduced. It is important because it bears on the theme of slavery, one which was of importance to the real Leonowens throughout her life, but not heavily consequential to the show. Kuhlenschmidt is lovely as always, even in a brunette wig, and Heuschober is looking particularly studly in his sleeveless costume. They sing and act nicely, and do their best to bring life to Hammerstein’s wooden characters.
Any good production of The King and I requires a small army of children. The Mac-Haydn has assembled a crew that is simultaneously poised and professional while still being fresh and childlike. They are obviously having a great time being up there on stage with the real actors and rise to the occasion beautifully.
The production is directed with finesse by Joseph Patton and nicely choreographed by Carissa Bellando. The long second act dance sequence when the cast enacts The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Uncle Tom's Cabin) has a truly oriental feel, enhanced by Jimm Halliday’s lovely costumes. In 1998 I see that I complained of visible safety pins holding together the King’s costumes. There are no such problems evident here – everyone looks good and the styles, while certainly not historically accurate, have enough of a southeast Asian feel to lend an air of the exotic.
Kristian Perry has once again done something remarkable with the two side walls that serve as “set” at the Mac-Haydn, and his design for the stage floor is subtle and creative.
The King and I runs through September 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for all ages. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004