Oscar Hammerstein II’s minor accomplishment was that he was the greatest lyricist in the history of Broadway, the principal author of a half-dozen of the most revolutionary and seminal musicals in the canon, and a man who by merely associating himself with a production could assure that it would attract a fortune in investment.
His major accomplishment was that he used his power and authority to talk sense about race in 1951 when good sense on the subject was in short supply.
Like any artist, he spread his grace by telling stories, and letting us draw our own conclusions. So in South Pacific, Nellie Forbush, the young nurse from Little Rock, finds the love of her life but because of her upbringing cannot accept his mixed-race children. The profound, confused and ruinous sadness which pours from her heart is all the lesson we need.
In The King and I, Hammerstein did a thing several magnitudes more difficult than he and Joshua Logan accomplished in South Pacific. South Pacific dealt with the concept of acceptance, but The King and I deals with acceptance itself, in that the British gentlewoman Anna Leonowens (Eileen Ward) comes to the court of Siam (now Thailand) to teach modern Western thought to the children of the King, and there encounters the entirely un-Western concepts of polygamy, slavery, and groveling obeisance in the face of authority.
It is easy, and tempting, to view The King and I from Anna’s perspective. It’s close to our own, and the play, after all, was based on a novel which was, in turn, based on Anna’s own memoir of her service in the 1860s in the court of the remarkable King Phra Chom Klao, known to Westerners as King Mongkut.But how much more rewarding it is to see it from the King’s perspective! Here is, after all, a man – thrust into Kingship after anticipating a life as a monk – who finds himself in desperate waters. After a millennium of cultural hegemony, he and his fellow Eastern monarchs are under siege from a European culture which is aggressive, heavily armed, and – this is the hardest part – more correct about the world, particularly matters of science. All around him, ancient kingdoms are falling to European invaders. He must adapt – learn – or his nation will suffer the same fate.
And this is the gift that Olney Theatre’s production of The King and I gives us – that we are able to see the difficult dance between the English and Siamese cultures through the eyes of the King, thanks to an astonishing performance by Paolo Montalban. In Montalban’s hands, the King is vital and impulsive, imperious and magnanimous, powerful and compassionate. Every sentence out of his mouth is a command, but the world delights him, and we can see it in Montalban’s twinkling eyes.
More than this: although the King is an absolute ruler, Mongkut is a man, subject to flaws – and a particularly self-aware man at that. As Montalban plays him, we can see the quiver of self-doubt behind his most imperious commands, but they are so subtle and so instantaneous that we can also believe that no one else sees them. When the King reaches his ultimate moment of self-doubt – when he is called upon to deliver a punishment both traditional and appropriate in his culture – we are prepared for it by the meticulous work Montalban has done to that point.
The King and I is a story of how Anna, having come to Siam to teach Western knowledge, came to teach Western values as well, and how she learned to appreciate and even love the culture of the ancient nation which was her host. This conflict is played out in the story of Tuptim (Yoonjeong Seong), who is brought to the King as a tribute from neighboring Burma. Mongkut accepts her as his due, and rather likes her; she acknowledges her position as a royal toy (“My Lord and Master,” she sings) but nonetheless pines for Lun Tha (Eymard Cabling), the Burmese man she loves.
Her dilemma strikes a responsive chord in Anna, both culturally and personally; Anna was blessed with a happy marriage to a man whom she loved and who died too soon, and thus feels bound at the soul with every couple in the embrace of true love (“Hello, young lovers, wherever you are,” she sings.) Her view of Tuptim as a person like herself establishes the gulf between her and the King, who views Tuptim as his rightful property, and, eventually, sees Lun Tha as a thief.
Tuptim’s desire to escape concubinage with the King and experience true love with Lun Tha is a central story in The King and I, and Richard Rodgers created the most challenging songs for her character. (The original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, had a limited range and Rodgers did not consider her capable of carrying the show musically). The operatic Seong meets every element of those challenges. Simply put, Olney has a tip top Tuptim. Her voice soars, flies, and swoops like an acrobat, and, in harmony with the excellent Cabling, is heartbreaking. Tuptim, like Mongkut, is a person in transition: she is the submissive child by cultural training, but snarling underneath is a woman – who has learned, perhaps, from Western teachers – who demands to be free.
Much of the second Act is given over to a play-within-a-play: Tuptim’s Eastern adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. As it turns out, the King is desperate to show off his nation’s high level of cultural achievement to the British ambassador (Ron Heneghan) so that he not be thought a barbarian, and thus be subject to an English invasion. Thus the King decks his many wives and children out in clothes as close to European as he can muster (Kendra Rai’s costumes throughout the production are out of this world), puts on a giant feed, and follows it with Tuptim’s play. The ambassador, who has romantic designs on Anna, is happy to attend.
The King and I
Closes December 29, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $31 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Of course, Tuptim is aware of the irony inherent in her production of the seminal anti-slavery art of her century. She feels her own obligations to the King most fiercely, and it breaks through her amiable mask at one point, earning a rebuke from the King’s principal wife, Lady Thiang (Janine Sunday, as good as I’ve seen her). Seong maintains her balance in this scene perfectly, so that her outburst is startling, but not out of character.
How do I love Olney’s production of The King and I? Let me count the ways.
(1) Montalban’s brilliant performance as the King. By saying this I don’t mean to discount Ward’s fine work as Anna; she brings considerable wit and perceptiveness to the role, and sings well. But Montalban simply makes this play his own.
(2) Seong’s beautiful work as Tuptim, which makes her as sympathetic as any heroine in the canon.
(3) Kendra Rai’s costumes
(4) The rest of Robbins’ choreography, as channeled by Vallee – and in particular the presentation of the royal children.
(5) The royal children, who are extraordinarily charming without ever being cloying. The actors are: Cooley, Haley Davis, Kyle Davis, Justin Hong, Sugai, Dulcie Pham, Nikki Wildy, Oliver Wang as the adorable youngest child, and Josiah Segui as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. Other actors which I did not see who play these roles are Benson, Daniel Chin, Lucy Gibbs, Lia Ilagan, Aiden Levin, Nathaniel Levine, and Emma Pham.
(6) The beautiful set, composed by James Fouchard to represent Bangkok in the 19th Century, and succeeding.
(7) Richard Rodgers’ music. Rodgers wanted to invoke the music of the East but did not think that his Western audiences would like it. So he wrote a jazzy score, full of open fifths and unusual keys, to simulate Thai music. It sounds great, particularly in The Small House of Uncle Thomas. (Christopher Youstra did the orchestrations).
(8) The orchestra, which makes it sound great. They are Jenny Cartney, musical director and conductor; Patrick Plunk, Stuart Smith, David W. Blackstone, Laura Stokes, Patricia Wnek, Catherine Mikelson, Frank Higgins and Alex Aucoin.
(9) Mark Waldrop’s superb direction, and especially his decision to make this the King’s play.
(10.) Thank you, Oscar Hammerstein II.
The King and I . Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II . Music by Richard Rodgers Based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margret Landon . Directed by Mark Woldrop . Musical Direction: Jenny Cartney . Assoc. Artistic Director: Christopher Youstra . Original Choreography: Jerome Robbins . Choreography by Tara Jeanne Vallee . Scenic design: James ouchard . Costume design: Kendra Rai . Lighting desing: Da Covey . Sound design: Jeff Dorfman . Produced by Olney Theatre Center.