The King and I Review from musicals101.com
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The King and I
Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - April 2002
Reviewed by John Kenrick 

Every now and then, amid all the lousy, so-so and 
occasionally great musicals, we get to reencounter a 
genuine masterwork. You know, that small handful of 
shows so flawlessly conceived that all you have to do is 
sing the songs and follow the script, and audiences are 
guaranteed a good time.

The King and I is one of those masterworks. We've all seen 
the movie umpteen times, and pretty much every high 
school and community theater group in the US has proven 
that cardboard scenery and homemade crepe costuming 
cannot dull the magic. The lush score, and an 
East-meets-West book that is still funny and surprisingly 
moving can seemingly work anywhere at anytime. But its 
especially rewarding when we get the chance to see this in 
a first class stage production, like the new Paper Mill revival. 
Dazzling to both the eye and ear, this is what Rodgers and 
Hammerstein had in mind when they wrote the show.

This being Richard Rodger's centennial year, everyone is 
justly celebrating his talents. Few pleasures match the 
sensation of hearing his incomparable melodies wash over 
one's senses. But this King & I is just as vibrant a reminder 
of the genius of Oscar Hammerstein II, whose book and 
lyrics remain amazingly fresh after more than half a century. 
This production includes the minor (and, to my mind, mostly 
unnecessary) book changes made for the 1997 Broadway 
revival, but the show is still Hammerstein's triumph. The 
never-fail laughs and surefire heart tugs still work  and oh, 
those Hammerstein finales! From Oklahoma to King and I 
to Sound of Music, his final moments shamelessly leave us 
smiling while blinking back a tear. No wonder he and 
Rodgers redefined the musical forever.

At the heart off it all is Anna Leonowens, the real-life 
Victorian widow who became school mistress to the royal 
court of Siam in the 1860's. Carolee Carmello is a 
wondrous Anna, capturing the emotional conflicts and 
singing with the kind of spot-on power that will gladden the 
heart of any showtune lover. When she sings "Hello Young 
Lovers," you get that warm feeling that comes when a gifted 
performer gets to give a timeless theatrical moment her all. 
If this production were opening on the other side of the 
Hudson, Carmello's performance would easily make her a 
leader in this season's Tony race. Her growing legion of 
fans (which I have belonged to since Off-Broadway's john 
and jen) will relish her work here.

I do not envy anyone the challenge of playing the King. The 
still-powerful memories of Yul Brynner and Lou Diamond 
Phillips make it doubly hard for anyone to take a fresh, 
effective approach to the role. Kevin Gray replaced Phillips in 
the 1997 Broadway revival, and his interpretation is very 
much his own. Perhaps a bit too much his own. His is take 
on "A Puzzlement" is frenetic, and at moments his overall 
approach to the character is downright shrill. There is a 
danger in this because the King's sometimes harsh 
character can only work if we come to love him  or at least 
to understand Anna's growing love for him. Happily, 
Hammerstein's superb dramatic sense eventually carries 
the day and Gray manages to make the big moments count. 
When he whirled Carmello about the floor in the joyous 
"Shall We Dance," it was every inch the showstopper it is 
meant to be, and his death scene was genuinely touching.

Standouts in the extensive supporting cast include Paolo 
Montalban as a humpy Lun Tha, and Margaret Ann Gates as 
a vocally dazzling Tuptim  I'll listen to her sing a Rodgers 
ballad anytime! Sandia Ang's Lady Thiang is dramatically 
flat, but she delivers the demanding "Something Wonderful" 
with musical flair. The children had an unaffected charm that 
won over the audience during "Getting to Know You" and 
other key scenes. Special kudos to the dancers for making 
the most of the magnificent "Small House of Uncle Thomas" 
ballet.

Director Mark Hoebee wisely makes sure that every aspect 
of this elaborate production moves smoothly along, letting 
the drama build and the sheer genius of the writing shine 
through. Michael Annia's gorgeous sets are the perfect 
counterpoint to Roger Kirk's ravishing costumes from the 
1997 revival (supervised here by Gail Baldoni). With a stylish 
assist from lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana, this 
production offered some visually sumptuous moments  
particularly the Act II starlit garden for "I Have Dreamed." 
Susan Kikuchi recreates the original Jerome Robbins 
choreography for the "Small House" ballet effectively, and 
has more or less freely adapted his original ideas for "The 
March of the Siamese Children" and "Shall We Dance."

And how that "Shall We Dance" scene works  its an 
emotional roller coaster! After gradually building to the giddy, 
passionate polka, it careens into the terror of Tuptim's 
capture, the King's rage, Anna's desperate attempts to hold 
him back, then the desolation of Anna's decision to leave 
Siam. Carmello, Gray and company play it for all it is worth 
this time around. It is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their 
best, weaving music, dialogue and dance into a seamless, 
exciting dramatic whole. I've seen this scene countless 
times in all sorts of productions, and it never fails to amaze 
me  and to take me flying with it every inch of the way.

Whether you are a returning friend or a first-time visitor, you 
will find this King and I a winner. Come to think of it, 
whenever Rodgers and Hammerstein are done intelligently, 
everyone in the audience is a winner.

(One complaint -- I know it is no longer legally required by 
the R&H Organization, but I wish productions of the King & I 
would still credit orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. He 
helped define what we know as the sound of Broadway's 
golden age. Bennett's work on this show is peerless, and 
deserves mention in the program.)

Runs at Paper Mill thru May 19, 2002