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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Olney's 'King and I' dazzles sold-out audience

Anna (Eileen Ward) and the Royal Children get to know each other in Olney Theatre Center's The King and I/Stan Barouh
Christmas arrived early in Olney this season, sprinkling magic and royal entertainment by way of Olney Theatre Center's, The King and I.

How can you beat a gorgeous palace setting filled with smiling children, a king, a governess dressed in mid-1800s finery, and music to charm even the biggest Scrooge in the bunch?

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
I'm afraid.

Add what seems like hundreds of stunning costumes with shimmering gold pieces and tall, fancy headdresses which never slip. So many to see and be carried away to a faraway land. 

Why do I adore large casts?  Not only are different faces and voices welcome, but they often mean stunning sets, glamorous costumes, beloved musical selections, and gaiety to make it a night to remember, and this performance meets every expectation and more.

Songs match the costumes in breadth and scale.  No mediocrity was detected in any of the many voices on stage, and deserving special applause is Janine Sunday, Lady Thiang, the main wife in the production. (The King of Mongkut had many wives and concubines.)

Eileen Ward is a summer song in a foreign place as she plays the British teacher, Anna, transported to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to teach the King's children (who, at last count, numbered around 67), adoringly acting their roles in tandem.  

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

Getting to know you,
Putting it my way,
But nicely,
You are precisely,
My cup of tea.

When Director Mark Waldrop was offered Fiddler on the Roof or The King and I, he opted immediately, according to the Olney study guide, for The King because Fiddler is performed so often and "I like a show where the leading lady gets to wear a big dress. That’s pretty much the truth."

There are plenty of "big dresses" in the show, with many fine hoop skirt designs Anna wears, dancing with the King to Shall We Dance and flowing over and around the stage, twirling up and down stairs, and you wonder why she doesn't trip in heels, except kingly biceps are there to guide her. (Tara Jeanne Vallee, choreographer.)

Anna (Eileen Ward) and the King of Siam (Paolo Montalban) in Olney Theatre Center's The King and I/Stan Barouh

Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say, goodnight and mean goodbye

Oh perchance
When the last little star has left the sky
Shall we still be together?
With our arms around each other
And shall you be my new romance?

On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?

Mr. Waldrop said he wanted a male lead with sex appeal, and Paolo Montalban, the King (sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Clifford L. Johnson) exceeds the requirement.  A feast for the ladies' eyes whose persona exudes just the right amount of kingly haughtiness and stage command:  "Silence!" 

A nine-piece orchestra, led by Jenny Cartney, with supervision and orchestrations by Christopher Youstra, adds warmth and vitality.

The grand palace with "marble" steps, long curtains cascading from sides to the center, tall columns, arches,  and views of the changing Bangkok skyline with silhouetted temples as backdrop add to the romance of the piece and place. (James Fouchard, scenic designer)

The play opened in 1951 on Broadway and ran for almost three years, then the fourth-longest Broadway play, according to Olney's associate dramaturge, Maegan Clearwood, who compiled the study guide. 

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II based their production on true experiences of British teacher, Anna Leonowens (1831-1915) who lived in Siam for five years beginning in 1862 with her six-year-old son, Louis (alternately played by Ian Berlin and Henry Niepoetter).  She was invited to Siam to be governess for the King's children. (Omitted from the script was her daughter, Avis, 7, sent to boarding school in England.)

The play generally ignores stereotypes and utilizes history, such as the King's offer of elephants to the United States government which President Abraham Lincoln politely declined.

Then, as now everywhere, change is reality as the King struggles to meet and accommodate Western ways and advance his nation. 

If you are old enough to recall Yul Brynner, his image as the King is likely the one you instantly recall when you click your memory's search tab.

His Anna on Broadway was Gertrude Lawrence who died of liver cancer 18 months after the show opened.  She was buried in the pink ball gown she wore in the production to dance with the King.  You will "ooh and aww" when you see its replacement on Ms. Ward before the big diplomatic dinner.

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I/

What a cultural contrast:  Anna's hoop skirts and fashions juxtaposed with Asian dress and surroundings. 

Of interest, Louis, Anna's son, eventually returned to Siam, and developed Louis T. Leonowens, Ltd. which became a leading international  trading company and bears his name today.

The musical certainly calls for Helen Hayes nominations:

Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Musical, Eileen Ward

Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical, Paolo Montalban

Outstanding Costume Design, Resident Production, Kendra Rai

Outstanding Director, Resident Musical, Mark Waldrop

Other performers are Alan Ariano, Eunice Bae, Eymard Cabling, Ron Curameng, David Gregory,  Ron Heneghan, Kimi Hugli,  Brittany Jeffery,  Yoonseong Jeong,  Aaron Komo, Kevin Kulp, Justine Moral, Yumiko Niimi, Rumi Oyama, Josiah Segui,  Momoko Sugai,  Jeffrey Wei, and the Royal Children: Kathryn Benson, Daniel Chin, Kylie Cooley, Haley Davis, Kyle Davis,  Lucy Gibbs, Justin Hong, Lia Ilagan, Aidan Levin, Nathaniel Levin, Dulci Pham, Emma Pham, Oliver Wang, and  Nikki Wildy.

What:  The King and I

When:  Extended through Sunday, January 5, 2014 with many matinees

Where:  Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832

How much: Tickets start at $31.

For more information:  301-924-3400

Hello young lovers, whoever you are,
I hope your troubles are few.
All my good wishes go with you tonight,
I've been in love like you.

Be brave, young lovers, and follow your star,
Be brave and faithful and true,
Cling very close to each other tonight.
I've been in love like you.

I know how it feels to have wings on your heels,
And to fly down the street in a trance.
You fly down a street on the chance that you meet,
And you meet -- not really by chance.

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DS said...

What I really like about the show is the number of Asians on stage, including the King! Love it.

Patricia Leslie said...