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Carolee Carmello in The King and I
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
No doubt about it: Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I is a masterpiece. I've always named this 1951 musical as one of my two personal favorites (the other being West Side Story) and, according to a highly informal straw poll that I recently conducted, many other people hold it in equally high esteem. It's unfortunate that news of Robert Johanson's dismissal from his longtime position as artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse upstaged the opening of the theater's fine production of the show last week, but let's rejoice in the fact that The King and I has been given its due in Millburn and may now be enjoyed without distraction.

Though it does admittedly have its quaint aspects, this gorgeous musical remains vital and pertinent due to the marvelous complexity of its characters and the brilliant way in which it handles its subject matter. As you may know, the show is based on a book by Margaret Landon that was in turn based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, an English woman who served as governess for the many, many children of the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s. The King and I makes cogent points concerning British imperialism and the perceived barbarism of Siam, and it also has fascinating things to say about differing cultural perspectives on slavery, polygamy, sex roles, and the like. (I mean, this kind of stuff just doesn't come up in The Pajama Game!) Then there's the score--one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's very best, from the disarming "I Whistle a Happy Tune" to the moving "We Kiss in a Shadow" to the exhilarating "Shall We Dance?"

There was much joy in Musical Theater Land when it was announced that Carolee Carmello would be playing "Mrs. Anna" in Paper Mill's King and I. Happily, this has not turned out to be a case where the anticipation was greater than the event. One of the finest singer-actresses of her time, as those who caught her gripping performance as Lucille Frank in Parade will attest, Carmello has the chops necessary to play Anna to the hilt. The role is a great one with lodes of subtext for an intelligent, talented performer to mine, and Carmello offers a characterization filled with nuance. She is radiant in all of Anna's musical moments but particularly in "Hello, Young Lovers," her amazing vocal control allowing her to thrillingly fill out the climax of the song without resorting to a raw, belting sound. Sheer magic!

Kevin Gray in The King and I
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
Given the excellence of Carmello's portrayal, it's no pleasure to report that Kevin Gray is maddeningly inconsistent as the King. Gifted with a beautiful "bari-tenor" singing voice, plus good looks and innate acting ability, Gray has sabotaged every performance I've seen him give through overplaying. He was out of control as Pontius Pilate in the awful production of Jesus Christ Superstar that had a blessedly brief run at the Ford Center two seasons ago--and, for that matter, he had many wild moments when he co-starred in The King and I during the latter part of the run of the 1996 Broadway revival. It's pretty much the same situation at Paper Mill: Gray still hasn't figured out how to communicate the King's imperious, volatile nature without sometimes appearing ridiculous. Instead, he screams like Mario Cantone at full throttle to indicate the character's manic moods and even indulges in a couple of inexplicably campy line readings. He has also made the unwise decision to talk--or yell--at least half of the song "It's a Puzzlement" rather than to sing it. The pity is that, in the relatively rare moments when Gray overcomes his worst instincts and takes a more measured approach to the material--e.g., his quietly powerful death scene and several emotionally intimate exchanges with Carmello's Anna--he shows how fine he could be in this challenging role. But one wonders how many more chances at it he's going to get.

The news is much better as regards the supporting cast. In keeping with recent practice, Paper Mill has populated its production almost entirely with Asian or part-Asian performers. (Long gone, it would seem, are the days when people like Larry Blyden appeared in shows like Flower Drum Song.) As Lady Thiang, Sandia Ang sings "Something Wonderful" so wonderfully that her somewhat stiff acting is forgivable. No such stiffness inhibits Margaret Ann Gates, a sympathetic and vocally resplendent Tuptim. As her secret lover, Lun Tha, Paolo Montalban displays an attractive voice in his duets with Gates, though a bit of strain is audible at the very top of his range. (One wonders why he didn't take the lower harmony line at the end of "I Have Dreamed.") He also looks terrific; this Lun Tha has apparently spent lots of time pumping iron at the Bangkok Health Club.

Hoon Lee is a commanding, deep-voiced Kralahome, and Robert Stoeckle's utterly charming performance in the small role of Sir Edward Ramsey is one of the production's greatest assets. Young Gerard Canonico and Erik Lin-Greenberg are natural and believable rather than arch and insufferable as Louis Leonowens and Prince Chulalongkorn, and every one of the kids playing the King's children is adorable. Dance mavens will be glad to know that the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet is in good hands here: Jerome Robbins' original choreography, lovingly recreated by Susan Kikuchi, is danced superbly by Mayumi Saito (Eliza), Yuka Fukuda (Simon of Legree), Vivien Eng (Angel George), and company.

?The Royal Children?
(Photo: Jery Dalia)
Most of the show's costumes are, I believe, from the Broadway revival, and they are lovely to look at. Less fully persuasive are Michael Anania's sets, some of which have an actively unrealistic, pop-up-book quality--but they are still handsome, expensive looking, and creative overall. (It's a nice touch to have the "Moses, Moses, Moses" scene between Anna and the King take place on a terrace of the palace, even if a recalcitrant moon spent some time flickering and rocking at the performance I attended.) A decent-sized orchestra plays R&H's magnificent score very well under music director Tom Helm. The performing edition of the show used at Paper Mill is basically that of the Broadway revival: a truncated overture, no "Western People Funny," no reprise of "It's a Puzzlement" for Louis and Chulalongkorn, etc.
Director Mark S. Hoebee deserves enormous credit for marshalling the forces of this huge production and, presumably, for helping Carolee Carmello to shine in it, even if he has been unable to curb Kevin Gray's excesses. Though The King and I is quite a popular commodity among professional, semi-professional, and amateur theater companies, a presentation as fine as this one will always be welcome.

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