Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
The King and I is one of those shows that everyone assumes is wonderful. After seeing the decidedly shoddy production at the Mac-Haydn last night, I began to wonder if the underlying problem isn’t in large part due to the show itself.
By the time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II produced The King and I in 1951, they had already reached legendary status in the American musical theatre. They had had their share of flops, but their hits were of such magnitude as to erase the less successful shows from the public’s mind (quick, hum me a tune from “Allegro” or “Me and Juliet”!) Gertrude Lawrence, the first Anna, was also a theatrical legend, and she died of cancer during the run of the show. Yul Brynner was not known for much of anything before he landed the role of the King of Siam, but immediately after opening night he was never known for anything else for as long as he lived. A star is born, a star dies, a legend continues. No wonder The King and I is considered a milestone in American musical theatre.
But does any of that make it a good show? When you go to see a production today, at the Mac-Haydn or on Broadway, you are guaranteed not to see Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. Rodgers beautiful music is trapped in Hammerstein’s weak book. Oscar Hammerstein II presented the world of a cock- eyed optimist in his writing, and his style is a bad match for this story.
The King and I is not a love story, and love stories are what traditional musical theatre in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mold are based on. Anna Leonowens was a brave, intelligent British widow who accepted the post of governess to the wives and children of the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860’s. Her experiences there were chronicled in the book “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, upon which Rodgers and Hammerstein based this show. We see Siam and the King through Anna’s eyes. They are two very different people from very different worlds, and, although they come to admire and respect each other deeply, there is no romance.
So Hammerstein inserts a romance that is very much on the periphery of the main story. Rodgers gives them some beautiful music to sing, but it is hard to care very much about the Burmese couple of Tuptim and Lun Tha. It is almost as if Rodgers and Hammerstein felt that no musical could survive without a love story.
So, this is a flawed show with some beautiful music and lead roles which present VERY large shoes for any performer to fill. Daphne Smith and Bill Ledbetter fall far short of legendary ability as Anna and the King. Smith is much too young and pretty to be a convincing Anna. This is not an ingenue role. Anna Leonowens was a mature woman, a widow, and the mother of an adolescent son who had traveled the world and made her living alone in a society that rarely permitted women to do so. Smith is every inch the blushing school girl, and it just doesn’t work.
Ledbetter simply can’t get his mouth around the rhythms of the King’s solos. He has shaved his head and his chest for the role and looks mighty fine topless, but that isn’t what it takes to be The King.
Neither Smith nor Ledbetter is assisted by an overall production that falls far short of professional. The King and I is a very big show requiring lavish costumes and a cast of thousands, including many, many small children. If Mac-Haydn didn’t have the budget to mount a show of this magnitude they shouldn’t have tried. The costumes are particularly shoddy and shopworn. If this was a high school or community theatre production that could be excused, but Mac-Haydn bills itself as a “professional musical theatre.” They could at least have mended the King’s costumes so that they did not have obvious holes, safety pins, and missing sequins. Costume designer William Howard seems to have an impressive resume, but if he turned out work this poor in the past it is no wonder he is at the Mac-Haydn and not the Goodspeed this year.
The staging and choreography by Dennis Edenfield works well in the Mac-Haydn’s small, in-the-round, setting. I have seen shows there were I felt the actors were frantically spinning like tops to do a little something for each segment of the audience. Edenfield has utilized the space well and you never feel that you are staring at anyone’s back for a few seconds longer than is necessary.
But Edenfield has made two serious errors in good taste and judgement in his staging that left me most uncomfortable. When people bow to the King they kneel, raise their arms above their head, and then bend forward pressing forehead and palms to the floor. This can raise the buttocks into the air in a prominent fashion, although it is also possible to kow-tow keeping ones posterior close to ones heels. Edenfield has Smith cavort in her Victorian undergarments and repeatedly assume this provocative pose, even though the King is nowhere in sight, during the number “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” At the conclusion of the song she puts her head down, sticks her bottom in the air and invites an imaginary King to kick her, which she then pretends he does and then appears to “enjoy” the experience.
Later in the show all the King’s wives are decked out in hoop skirts in order to receive visiting British dignitaries. One of the show’s big laughs involves these women suddenly upending themselves to bow to the king in these skirts which, of course, fall forward over their heads and expose them. This is all very well and good in a big Broadway theatre, but the Mac-Haydn is a tiny, intimate space. To ask young actresses wearing only white cotton panties to present their buttocks to an audience only a few feet away is in extremely poor taste. Although both of these moments are in Hammerstein’s script, more effort should have been taken to preserve the performers’ modesty and the audience’s.
The King and I runs through September 6 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 in Chatham, NY. Call 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998