Reviewed by John Kenrick
The King (Kevin Gray) introduces Anna (Carolee Carmello) to his children.
Every now and then, amid all the lousy, so-so and occasionally great musicals on New York stages today, we get to reencounter a genuine masterwork. You know, one of that small handful of shows that were so flawlessly conceived that all you have to do is sing the songs and follow the script, and audiences are guaranteed a great time.
The King and I is one of those masterworks. Almost everyone on in the audience has seen the movie version, and pretty much every high school and community theater group in the US has proven that cardboard scenery and homemade crepe costuming cannot dull the magic. The lush score, and an East-meets-West book that is still funny and surprisingly moving can seemingly work anywhere at anytime. But its especially rewarding when we get the chance to see this in a first class stage production, like the new Paper Mill revival. Dazzling to both the eye and ear, this is what Rodgers and Hammerstein had in mind when they wrote the show.
Few pleasures match the sensation of hearing Richard Rodgers' incomparable melodies wash over one's senses. But this King & I is also a vibrant a reminder of the genius of Oscar Hammerstein II, whose book and lyrics remain amazingly fresh after more than half a century. This production includes the minor (and, to my mind, mostly unnecessary) book changes made for the 1997 Broadway revival, but the show is still Hammerstein's triumph. The never-fail laughs and surefire heart tugs still work – and oh, those Hammerstein finales! From Oklahoma to King and I to Sound of Music, his final moments shamelessly leave us smiling while blinking back a tear. No wonder he and Rodgers redefined the musical forever.
At the heart off it all is Anna Leonowens, the real-life Victorian widow who became school mistress to the royal court of Siam in the 1860's. Carolee Carmello is a wondrous Anna, capturing the emotional conflicts and singing with the kind of spot-on power that will gladden the heart of any showtune lover. When she sings "Hello Young Lovers," you get that warm feeling that comes when a gifted performer gets to give a timeless theatrical moment her all. If this production were opening on the other side of the Hudson, Carmello's performance would easily make her a leader in this season's Tony race. Her growing legion of fans (which I have belonged to since Off-Broadway's john and jen) will relish her work here.
I do not envy anyone the challenge of playing the King. The still-powerful memories of Yul Brynner and Lou Diamond Phillips make it doubly hard for anyone to take a fresh, effective approach to the role. Kevin Gray replaced Phillips in the 1997 Broadway revival, and his interpretation is very much his own. Perhaps a bit too much his own. His is take on "A Puzzlement" is frenetic, and at moments his overall approach to the character is downright shrill. There is a danger in this because the King's sometimes harsh character can only work if we come to love him – or at least to understand Anna's growing love for him. Happily, Hammerstein's superb dramatic sense eventually carries the day and Gray manages to make the big moments count. When he whirled Carmello about the floor in the joyous "Shall We Dance," it was every inch the showstopper it is meant to be, and his death scene was genuinely touching.
Anna (Carolee Carmello) and the children sing "Getting to Know You."
Standouts in the extensive supporting cast include Paolo Montalban as a humpy Lun Tha, and Margaret Ann Gates as a vocally dazzling Tuptim – I'll listen to her sing a Rodgers ballad anytime! Sandia Ang's Lady Thiang is dramatically flat, but she delivers the demanding "Something Wonderful" with musical flair. The children had an unaffected charm that won over the audience during "Getting to Know You" and other key scenes. Special kudos to the dancers for making the most of the magnificent "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet.
Director Mark Hoebee wisely makes sure that every aspect of this elaborate production moves smoothly along, letting the drama build and the sheer genius of the writing shine through. Michael Anania's gorgeous sets are the perfect counterpoint to Roger Kirk's ravishing costumes from the 1997 revival (supervised here by Gail Baldoni). With a stylish assist from lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana, this production offered some visually sumptuous moments – particularly the Act II starlit garden for "I Have Dreamed." Susan Kikuchi recreates the original Jerome Robbins choreography for the "Small House" ballet effectively, and has more or less freely adapted his original ideas for "The March of the Siamese Children" and "Shall We Dance."
And how that "Shall We Dance" scene works – its an emotional roller coaster! After gradually building to the giddy, passionate polka, it careens into the terror of Tuptim's capture, the King's rage, Anna's desperate attempts to hold him back, then the desolation of Anna's decision to leave Siam. Carmello, Gray and company play it for all it is worth this time around. It is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best, weaving music, dialogue and dance into a seamless, exciting dramatic whole. I've seen this scene countless times in all sorts of productions, and it never fails to amaze me – and to take me flying with it every inch of the way.
Whether you are a returning friend or a first-time visitor, you will find this King and I a winner. Come to think of it, whenever Rodgers and Hammerstein are done intelligently, everyone in the audience is a winner.
(One small but sincere complaint: I know it is no longer legally required by the R&H Organization, but I wish productions of the King & I would still credit Robert Russell Bennett for the orchestrations. He helped define what we know as the sound of Broadway's golden age. Bennett's work on this show is still peerless, and deserves mention in the program.)