The King and I
Thalian Hall Main Stage
310 Chestnut Street
6/17-19, 24-26, 8 p.m. or Sun., 3pm
Tickets: $23-$25 • thalianhall.com
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” staged by Opera House Theatre Company, has fascinated audiences since the 1950s. Local fans and theatre gurus will enjoy the opportunity to see this show live.
The story is based very loosely on the real-life events of Anna Leonowens (Kendra Goehring-Garrett), an English woman hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Robin Dale Robertson) in the early 1860s in what is now known as Thailand. In the play, she arrives with her young son Louis (Bradley Barefoot) in tow, and sets up a school in the royal palace. She has been recruited by King Mongkut as part of his modernization plan for the country of Siam.
In the play, which is a highly romanticized version of events, Anna’s presence is a painful catalyst for the country’s reforms and the king’s own destruction. She arrives and, in states of culture shock, begins forcing Western ideas and opinions upon the king about the way he runs his household, family and country. Simultaneous with her arrival is a present from the king of Burma: a lovely young woman named Tuptim (Mary Stewart Evans). Anna is shocked that he can accept another human being as a present, especially when it is obvious that Tuptim is in love with someone else, Lun Tha (Tré Cotten), who escorted her from Burma to Siam.
Anna’s educational duties include not only the children of the king, but many of the wives and consorts as well. With her help, the king manages to entertain and charm a British emissary scouting Siam as a possible conquest. She and the king build a contentious relationship full of admiration and even am undercurrent of romance.
When the king dies, and Prince Chulalongkorn (Spencer Nguyen) comes to the throne, Anna is credited with introducing Western ideas to him, which among other things result in the elimination of the traditional bow to royalty. (In real life, Chulalongkorn was a very forward-thinking, modern king, who ushered Siam into the 20th century, introduced sweeping political reform and sent his children to Europe for education.)
Without question, this is a wonderful family theatre experience. “The March of the Siamese Children,” when we the audience get to meet the king’s wives and children, is, quite simply, lovely. As each pretty princess enters and bows to the king and Miss Anna, only a very hard-hearted person would not melt.
“This was the first show I was in,” confided Michele Zapple, local actress who happened to be seated next to me. “I was four years old and played the littlest one,” she continued with a smile and reminiscent chuckle. It is easy to understand how such an opulent show could inspire her lifetime love of theatre. Let’s hope the same happens for the young ladies onstage.
Goehring-Garrett as Anna Leonowens is charming. She sings beautifully and dances well in spite of the encumbrances of her clunky Victorian clothing (hoop skirts and all!). Most importantly, she and Robertson have great chemistry. During the “Shall We Dance” scene, each time they are interrupted by a knock at the door, the audience really feels that pivotal moment in their relationship derailing. In spite of knowing they can not fall in love, everyone keeps hoping they do and senses its inevitability.
On the night I saw the show, Robertson seemed to struggle in the first few scenes with the ghost of Yul Brynner (of the film and original Broadway production), but he quickly found his feet and his own voice. He has strength as an actor and an innate ability to relate to others onstage. In this production, especially, it’s truly beautiful to witness his ability to connect with the children in the cast. He shines as a proud but overworked father of over 70 children. He and Goehring-Garrett both communicate real affection for each one of the children, and also set excellent examples of professionalism onstage. Along with director Suellen Yates, they have succeeded in getting all the kids simultaneously moving in an orderly manner, all of which is not distracting and allows the adults to drive the action of the play. This might sound simple, but it is in fact quite an accomplishment, and they should be applauded.
This is not a musical of big ensemble songs and dance numbers, it is primarily composed of solos and duets, strung together to flesh out the story. Yates has assembled a talented group indeed for her principals. Spencer Nguyen as Prince Chulalongkorn handles a pretty demanding role for one so young (6th grade) and quite impressively. He exudes the confidence of the Crown Prince, but still he wrestles with the confusion that all of us feel about growing up in a changing world. He has a strong voice and good stage presence.
Cecily Anne Boyd as Lady Thiang is an excellent choice. It is a part that really showcases her vocal talent, and she brings a calm, steady force to her interactions with Anna, Tuptim and the king, something the part requires. Tuptim and Lun Tha’s (Mary Stewart Evans and Tré Cotten) big duet “We Kiss in a Shadow” is haunting.
Music director Lorene Walsh has a 20-piece ensemble in the form of the New Hanover High School band. They sound wonderful! To me, part of the tangible proof of high level artistic achievement is the regular inclusion of live music in musical theatre. Our theatre community does not squander the opportunity to astound. R. Timothy McCoy, the band director, and Lorene Walsh should be proud of the performance. Their timing was impeccable, and the sound was amazing throughout the show.
Dallas LaFon’s lighting design really enhanced this production, as did Debbie Scheu’s costuming. People expect a certain level of production value in the form of beautiful costumes and great sets that enhance main stage productions. Unfortunately, if these jobs are done well, they tend not to be noticed. The technical team at Opera House has, yet again, made everyone onstage look good.