Olney Theatre Center offers up a fine holiday bauble in its sparkly staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” that enduring chestnut of a musical that debuted on Broadway in 1951.
Director Mark Waldrop takes few, if any, liberties with the oft-revived show about a British teacher who goes to Siam to educate the king’s children. Amplification of voices aside, the production feels like a lavish chamber musical in Olney’s 429-seat main space, a felicitous blend of the epic and the intimate.
As the tempestuous King of Siam, Paolo Montalban rules the stage with flawless timing and a perfect sense of entitlement. He nails the King’s big number, “A Puzzlement,” in which the monarch ponders the perils of nudging his country into modernity.
As Anna, the teacher, Eileen Ward brings a strong and pleasing voice to “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You.” She has a sharp comic edge and a teacher’s patience in debates with her regal boss, but her portrayal could do with a few more degrees of warmth.
When the production occasionally falters, the glitches come from offstage. One can hear scenery trundling heavily into place behind screens. At other times, cast members can be glimpsed in the wings. The small orchestra, conducted by Jenny Cartney, lacks the fuller sound that could drown out those scenery moves, and the brass players could use a more consistent pitch.
Yet these are minor distractions in a production that delivers. James Fouchard’s elegant, unfussy set frames the actors well, with movable screens in pagoda-like shapes and broad curved steps at the front of the stage, perfect for Anna and the King to twirl upon in “Shall We Dance?”
The set’s relative simplicity also sets off the glittering costumes and gold filigree headgear from designer Kendra Rai. (Additional costumes were supplied by Costume World Theatrical in Florida.) Anna’s staid hoop skirts are appropriately schoolmarmish until she goes for off-the-shoulder silk at the King’s feast.
Set in Siam — now Thailand — in the 1860s, “The King and I” is based loosely on the actual adventures of British school teacher Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut to educate his many children by various wives. A widow with a young son, Louis (Henry Niepoetter on press night; alternating with Ian Berlin), Anna boldly spars with the King over everything.
The many actors of Southeast Asian and Pacific Island ancestry who take on the Siamese and Burmese roles work against any stereotyping lurking in the script with just plain good acting and nuance. Rodgers and Hammerstein were famously progressive, but the show is still 62 years old.
In the ballet sequence, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Siamese characters perform their own version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Olney’s graceful staging, choreographed by Tara Jeanne Vallee, doesn’t wholly drop racial caricatures, but for young audiences, the freedom message should still ring true.
YoonJeong Seong as Tuptim, the Burmese concubine sent to the King as a gift, unleashes operatic and dramatic power when she sings of her enslavement and love for another in “My Lord and Master.” As her secret lover Lun Tha, Eymard Cabling matches Seong vocally, though with understated heat in their duets “We Kiss In a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.”
Strong supporting performances keep the show on an even keel throughout. Alan Ariano is particularly fine as the King’s cautious prime minister, the Kralahome. Janine Sunday as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, sings with heartbreak of the love she still holds for him in “Something Wonderful,” another of the hummable tunes to take home from this royal visit.
Jane Horwitz is a freelance writer.
music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Mark Waldrop. Lighting design, Dan Covey; sound, Jeff Dorfman. With Ron Heneghan, Ron Curameng, Yumiko Niimi, Lia Ilagan and Dulcie Pham. Adult ensemble: Eunice Bae, David Gregory, Kimi Hugli, Brittany Jeffery, Kevin Kulp, Justine Moral, Momoko Sugai, Jeffrey Wei. Young local performers: Kathryn Benson, Kylie Cooley, Daniel Chin, Haley Davis, Kyle Davis, Lucy Gibbs, Justin Hong, Aidan Levin, Nathaniel Levin, Emma Pham, Oliver Wang, Nikki Wildy. Tickets $31 to $63.50, plus online purchase fees. About 2 hours, 45 minutes, including an intermission. Presented through Dec. 29 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.