To be considered a lover or scholar of musical theatre, there is an essential repertoire of work that a person must know. Alongside shows like Oklahoma, Fiddler on the Roof, and Guys & Dolls, The King and I stands proudly as one of these classic standards. When it opened on Broadway in 1951, it broke thematic ground, with a plot based on actual historical events and character’s relationships focused on respect and understanding, rather than romantic love. Following the story of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens’ experience teaching the children and wives of Siamese King Mongkut in 1863 Bangkok, The King and I is as much a tale of political diplomacy and an examination of the post-colonial cultural struggle as it is a heartfelt musical with beautiful songs.
In closing out their 75th season, Olney Theatre Center’s production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic presents a fine balance between these light-hearted tunes and the more dramatic themes of imperialism and honor. Without getting overly sentimental or insufficiently serious, director Mark Waldrop has created the perfect blend of elements and reminded me why The King and I has been so beloved for more than 60 years. He has assembled a large cast (36 actors, although the children are double-cast, so there’s never more than 28 in a show) and an impressive 12-person design team, and yet not allowed the 2 hour 45 minute show fall prey to its own mammoth size, or even feel like it was nearly three hours. The show was clean, clear, and well-paced, with a very talented cast.
Eileen Ward was able to be simultaneously delicate and feminine, as well as strong and unyielding in her portrayal of Anna, which was a nice complement to the King, played by Paolo Montalban. Montalban possesses such a strong star power and sex appeal that I found myself unable to look anywhere else when he was on stage. He has such a powerful, commanding presence that his realization that he is actually vulnerable and mortal becomes heartbreaking. Other standouts include Janine Sunday (Lady Thiang), whose voice and acting were enchanting, Eymard Cablings (Lun Tha) who has such a silky voice that it was easy to understand why Tuptim (played by YoonJeong Seong) would risk her life to have a forbidden love affair with him, and Rumi Oyama (Eliza) whose dancing was spectacular in the Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet.
Although it is one of the great classics of musical theatre, The King and I suffers from the same dilemma as many period pieces, in that there is very limited creative license a production can take. Set in 1863 Bangkok, and dealing with very specific cultural and social tensions between the British Empire and Siam, directors and designers have a finite window of options in order to adhere to the integrity of the script. A talented cast, great direction, and stellar designers certainly improve the quality of the show, but that tends to be the only distinction between productions, which is why I feel like this show as a whole falls under the adage “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” If you’re wanting to see something new and innovative, this isn’t it. That eing said, if you are a fan of the 1956 film, love the music from the show, or have simply enjoyed previous productions of The King and I, you’ll love Olney Theatre Center’s production, since they do have a talented cast, great direction and stellar designers.
The King and I performs at Olney Theatre Center now through December 29, located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets $31-64. For more information call 301.924.3400.