''The King'' and I
Complaints over a negative review of Kevin Gray in The King and I at the Paper Mill Playhouse bring up an intriguing question.
I did concede in my review that "the King is one of the toughest roles in the musical theater canon, ever since Yul Brynner put his seemingly indelible stamp on it. But as Lou Diamond Phillips proved six years ago in a Tony-winning revival, the assignment isn't insurmountable. [Kevin] Gray's haircut--with the sides and back shaved clean and the crown sporting a dark dollop--provides an apt metaphor, for sometimes he imitates Brynner, and sometimes he goes his own way. While simply photocopying a previous performance is usually a bad choice, Gray would have, on balance, been better off to channel Brynner, for what he does to the King of Siam is, sad to say, a musical theater crime. He is so extraordinarily effete that he may remind older theatergoers of Billy DeWolfe, that supercilious fancy-pants of '40s films. He portrays the autocrat in a terribly immature way, as an overly petulant boy instead of a man, using a thin, reedy diction that's reminiscent of an adolescent whose voice hasn't yet changed. Indeed, when the King's teenage son Chulalongkorn (staunchly played by Erik Lin-Greenberg) makes his entrance, the boy walks with such authority and masculinity that he already seems much more of a man than his father."
Over the eight-plus years I've spent at the Star-Ledger, I have rarely gotten letters of complaints about my reviews; but in the week that followed the notice sampled above, I received five e-mails and one letter protesting my opinion on Gray. One man pointed out that the haircut I mentioned was precisely the same one that Phillips wore--missing my point that the haircut was a metaphor for Gray's yes-I'm-Brynner, no-I'm-not performance and that what was on the top of his head was not a problem in itself. Another pointed out that Gray had done the role on Broadway, as if that was proof positive that he had to be good. Oh, how I wish I could say that being on Broadway meant automatic excellence...but you and I both know that it does not.
My heartfelt response to all of the complaints was as follows: "I'm delighted you had a good time at The King and I and that Gray's performance worked for you. I'd much rather that you enjoy yourself than concur with me. Let's just agree to disagree." And I wasn't being supercilious, either. This wasn't the time to announce that I've seen umpteen productions of The King and I over the years, or that having done so means that I must be right. People respond to different performances for different reasons.
But the e-mail that most intrigued me was the one that said I obviously didn't know anything about theater, because anyone who's studied the medium is aware that no one can be good if the performer he or she is playing opposite is bad. Thus, Carolee Carmello couldn't possibly be "charming," "powerful," "mellifluous," and "wonderful" (as I'd stated) if Kevin Gray was so wretched. Could this possibly be true? The show that immediately came to mind was Funny Girl. As someone who read every review of the Boston and Philadelphia tryouts as well as the Broadway premiere, I can tell you that not one critic thought Sydney Chaplin was any good at all as Nicky Arnstein but that everyone sure liked that Barbra Streisand kid as Fanny Brice. Granted, Streisand lost the Tony to Carol Channing in Dolly, but I'm not prepared to believe that this was because Chaplin played opposite her.
I asked my friend David Schmittou, who recently played Georg in She Loves Me at Stages St. Louis and will return there this year to portray Oscar in Sweet Charity, "Could this possibly be true?" He pooh-poohed the notion and then added, "Why don't you ask your readers who are actors? I'm sure you'll get some good responses from them." I'm sure I will, too--for I always do whenever I throw a question out there. Please, no matter what you think, do let me hear from you: Can you be good if your scene partner isn't? I'll report whatever you tell me.