Long before vengeful barbers, masked opera men, and barricades invaded the musical theater stage, there were overtures, entr’actes, and dream ballets. Before Sondheim, Weber, and Larson became de rigueur, there was one team, a composer and a lyricist, that changed American musicals. This pair—one of the greatest and influential partnerships in theater history—was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Oklahoma! South Pacific. The Sound of Music. While revolutionary in subject and tone, their musicals brimmed over with beautiful melodies and haunting lyrics. Even after 50 years, they continue to be some of the most often performed musicals in the country. In Walnut Street Theatre’s lovely production of The King and I, R&H’s fifth collaborative project, it’s easy to see why.
For those unfamiliar with The King and I — which is what, like, four of you? — the story revolves around a British schoolteacher, Anna (played by the exquisite Rachel York), arriving in Siam to tutor the many children of the King (Mel Sagrado Maghuyop). Immediately Anna and the King are at odds: he believing that she doesn’t know a woman’s place, she believing that he is a sexist prig. But after time, their contentious relationship melts into one of mutual respect and potentially more.
It is a pleasure, and somewhat of a surprise, to see Rachel York as Anna. Many may know her for originating the roles of the young vamp Mallory in the original Broadway production of City of Angels and the uncouth mob girlfriend Norma in the original Broadway production of Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews. With a powerful belt and whip-smart comic timing, Anna, a proper governess, seems an odd fit. But quickly, York commands the role. Her voice is strong and crystal clear. Her performance warm, but demonstrative. A highlight is the beautiful “Hello Young Lovers.” Just listen to the end, where York’s voice effortlessly and commandingly ascends the final notes.
As King, Maghuyop has a much more difficult task. After all this part is indelibly linked to the Tony and Oscar winner Yul Brynner. Yes, he has the trademarked shaved head, but Maghuyop brings much more comic mischievousness to the part (mostly avoiding being too slapsticky) and youthful performance. With Anna’s stiff demeanor, it is a great contrast. Making the “Shall We Dance?” number, all the more entertaining.
Additional notice must also be given to Austin Ku and Manna Nichols who play young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, respectively. Their voices, like Angelica-Lee Aspiras (Lady Thiang) are simply magnificent.
With direction and choreography by Marc Robin (who directed Walnut Street’s production of White Christmas last season), music direction by Douglass G. Lutz, sets by Robert Andrew Kovach, and costumes by Colleen Grady, The King and I is not to be missed. It is a respectful production of a classic that makes you remember just how much you love this music.
The King and I runs through January 8th at the Walnut Street Theatre.