Entertainment » Theatre

The King and I

by Jeremy Gable
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Nov 22, 2011
Rachel York, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, and the ensemble of "The King and I"
Rachel York, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, and the ensemble of "The King and I"   (Source:Mark Garvin)

This season's offerings in the Philadelphia theater scene have included such emotionally devastating fare as The Wilma's "Our Class" and the Arden's "The Whipping Man." And with the winter months upon us, perhaps some slighter, warmer fare is needed.

Cue the Walnut Street Theatre with their production of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I." The classic Tony-winning East-meets-West musical opened last Wednesday at the Walnut's main stage, and while it provides a few twists on the old classic, it is not an entirely successful revival.

"The King and I" was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's fourth stage collaboration, and their initial reluctance to adapt Margaret Landon's book "Anna and the King of Siam" shows with the material.

Certainly, Rodgers seemed to have some fun giving his sweeping American melodies a more Asian flair, and Hammerstein dips into W.S. Gilbert territory with songs like "A Puzzlement" and "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"

And while the show contains two of their most beautiful pieces -- "Hello Young Lovers" and "I Have Dreamed" -- the show lacks the passion of their other classics like "South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music". Songs are often short and anti-climactic, relying too heavily on solo aside numbers, and Hammerstein's overlong book relies too heavily on gags involving the numerous cultural differences.

Marc Robins' production tries to combat this by providing a new look at the titular characters. Rachel York and Mel Sagrado Maghuyop are younger than any Anna or King in recent memory, and they certainly bring a fresh energy to the show. But that does not always lead to successful results.

York has a gorgeous voice, which she infuses with a Julie Andrews lilt, and she is more than capable of showing Anna's strength and independence in a world of female slavery and polygamy. But she lacks a command of the stage that Anna requires, and in her saddest and most revealing number "Hello Young Lovers", she seems more interested in belting the notes than in connecting with the words.

York has a gorgeous voice, which she infuses with a Julie Andrews lilt, and she is more than capable of showing Anna’s strength and independence in a world of female slavery and polygamy.

Maghuyop, on the other hand, has perhaps too much command. His King is more playful, and provides for some fun moments where ego and insecurity collide, but for the most part his reliance on goofy mannerisms overpowers the combination of menace and emotional complexity required of a character who is expected to know everything while experiencing little.

Therefore, when these two forces finally give in to their temptation in "Shall We Dance", the number lacks the exuberance toward which the show has been building. Rather than being the catharsis of pent-up emotions, it merely feels like a dance amongst friends.

However, there is much to love in this production. Manna Nichols is heartbreaking as the slave girl Tuptim, and along with Austin Ku's excellent Lun Tha, their rendition of "I Have Dreamed" had all the passion and chemistry that was otherwise missing from the production (consequently, it received the biggest cheer of the night).

Both Angelica-Lee Aspiras's Lady Thiang and Alan Ariano's Kralahome do a great job of showing the fight between royal duty and forbidden emotion. And the Royal Children of Siam provide some of the most genuinely fun moments of the night, including a surprisingly enjoyable "Getting to Know You".

The real stars of the production, however, may be on the technical side. No expense seemed to have been spared on Robert Andrew Kovach's luxurious sets, Paul Black's elegant lighting, and especially Colleen Grady's gorgeous costumes.

The ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" -- often the highlight of any production of "The King and I" -- is no exception here, with Robins' choreography providing a stark contrast to the rest of the production. Performed on a bare stage, the dance creates the most engrossing moment of the night, a beautiful story told only through movement and music.

It is a reminder of the power of musical theater to take you to another world, especially one that may be halfway across the globe. And that world certainly seems warmer than winter in Philadelphia. Sometimes that might be all one needs in a night of theater.

"The King and I" runs through January 8, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. For info or tickets call 215-574-3550 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster.

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