‘The King and I’ at Olney Theatre Center by Amanda Gunther

A magical and enchanting production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I makes its way to the stage at Olney Theatre Center as the final production in their 75th Anniversary Season. The classic tale of the King of Siam set in the 1860s spins brightly into the hearts of audience members young and young at heart with all of the classic songs from this wonderful and popular score. Directed by Mark Waldrop with Musical Direction by Jenny Cartney, this sensational production is just in time for the holiday season and is perfect for the entire family.

'Shall We Dance?' Paolo Montalban (The King) and Eileen Ward (Anna). 'Photo by  Stan Barouh.
‘Shall We Dance?’ Eileen Ward (Anna) and Paolo Montalban (The King). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The production rounds out the bill in all the visually creative departments to give the audience the full Siamese immersion experience. Scenic Designer James Fouchard crafts a glorious set that is magnificent to behold; the expedience and seamlessness with which the elaborate scene changes occur is truly a blessing from Buddha. The lavish interior of the palace pays tribute to the King’s wealth and power with the exterior screens fitting the location and time period of the production. Fouchard’s gorgeous design also includes three-tiered stairs that extend the length of the entire stage. While breathtaking to see, these stairs create a heavy sense of hesitancy between Anna and The King during the show’s main dance number “Shall We Dance” and, unfortunately, it was executed in a clunky and awkward fashion.

Adding layers of elegance to the production is the work of Costume Designer Kendra Rai. The dull, more sensible fashion patterns reserved for Anna (though quite tastefully done in the enormous hoop-skirt style of England) are a stark cultural contrast to the oriental palette of eye-popping colors, glitter and gold used on the King and his many wives. Rich shimmering fabrics in a bright array of colors makes each wife stand out, if only for a moment, individually while the golden sparkles and bangles of wealth are reserved solely for the King. Rai’s bright orange wraps for the temple priests keep everyone standing apart from everyone else; her designs rather whimsical and intriguing across the board, especially for the beautiful craftwork used during the ballet scene in Act II.

The “Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet” scene is brilliantly staged and choreographed by Tara Jeanne Vallee. The elegance and grace that is executed in this interpretational ballet routine is swanlike; divinity in fluid motion that tells an emotional story as the ballet progresses. The ballet is Vallee’s finest work and makes for a truly tantalizing sight during the second act.

The sound of a production is not solely based in its musical quality but in the versatility and accuracy of the accents being portrayed. Dialect Consultant Lynn Watson achieves great success with the principle characters and the subtle distinguishing factors between a proper polished English sound on Anna and Sir Ramsey and the boat captain and her son Louis. The King and his young children,  as well as Lady Thiang, create exceptional accents as well, fitting the area and locale of the play’s setting. This is a key component to successfully producing this show; all the correct sounds to match the stunning aesthetics, and Watson’s coaching ensures that this occurs.

A pair of young lovers populates the side plot of this production, Lun Tha (Eymard Cabling) and Tuptim (Yoonjeong Seong). Creating blissful harmonies together their voices melt into ethereal love during their duets “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Their nervous forbidden love trembles in both of their voices and their brief encounters showcase a deep connection between them. Cabling’s gentle tenor voice creates a harmonious balance against Seong’s operatic soprano sound. Seong has a breathtaking sound that reverberates passionate soul during “My Lord and Master” laced with defiance and filled with the truth of her heart. Her voice is rapturous and brings the audience to thunderous applause each time she finishes singing; her sustainability on the final notes alone well worth the ovation.

Lady Thiang (Janine Sunday) is the most convincing of those in his majesty’s court. Her accent is flawless, the stammered pronunciations over difficult English words sounding appropriate without being stereotypical or offensive. And her singing voice is grounded in a well of deep emotions that flow forth during her solo “Something Wonderful.” There is a sincerity behind her song – in honest humanity that repeats in “Reprise: Something Wonderful.”

The title characters of the show earn their weight in gold with their singing and emotional acting. Both The King (Paolo Montalban) and Anna (Eileen Ward) are exceptionally talented singers and performers, and craft fully-developed characters that do more than just tell this timeless story.

Montalban as the rigid unyielding king unearths a deep confusion in his character; a rare blink of ordinary human being beneath his regal and powerful exterior. During his solo “A Puzzlement” he engages the audience with his questions as if he were fully aware that he had an audience but manages to do so without ever breaking the 4th wall. His animated facial expressions lend an air of humor to the character, particularly when he is trying to make sense of Anna’s peculiar ways. Montalban has a fiercely commanding presence on the stage, even when he experience moments of soft vulnerability, all eyes are drawn to him. His stature is always exuding an air of royalty even when he is forced to bend and break. A sensational performance, truly worth of praise, Montalban is every bit the fantastic king Siam deserves.

"Small House of Uncle Thomas" Ballet. Photo by Stan Barouh.
“Small House of Uncle Thomas” Ballet. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Eileen Ward’s performance as Anna is magical. With a fiery presence that contends well with the larger than life personality of The King, Ward seizes each opportunity to spark a moment of passion to life. Her ability to carry and sustain beautiful notes is beyond impressive and she does so without sacrificing the sound of her prim British accent. Her speaking voice infuses little hints of sass that really jab daggers at the King to establish her presence, but the soul she gives Anna is pure and kind. Her solo “Hello, Young Lovers,” is filled with a bittersweet nostalgia that reminisces fondly upon her youth while sending good tidings to those that are still living it. Her boisterous nature is quite comical during “Shall We Dance” and she manages to keep spirits high around the palace during her stay there. Ward does an exceptional job of balancing her gentle singing voice with her more forceful personality to create a perfectly blended rendition of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein character.

A beauty to behold, a wonder to enjoy; the whole family will delight in seeing Olney Theatre Center’s production of The King and I. So be sure to get your tickets before the last boat sails out of Siam at the end of this holiday season.

Running Time: Three hours, with one intermission.

KAI_728x90 (3)The King and I plays through December 29, 2013 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

Directing ‘The King and I’ At Olney Theatre Center By Mark Waldrop.


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