Turtle Lane's pint size stage is currently packed with a bushel and a peck of a musical. The original 1950-51 production of "The King And I" must count among the most visually dazzling ever mounted. It has been nearly half a century since I saw it, yet I remember it more vividly and in greater detail than any two hours has a right to be remembered; a memory undimmed by repeated viewings of the even more sumptuous but not quite so magical movie. I went to Turtle Lane expecting to see a mere sketch of that lavishness-- but Ronald Dion's set is panoramic and monumental, a graceful facade of smooth rich pinkish beige that might be an interior or exterior, the wall of either a room or a garden. To lend it Siamese opulence, Dion's wall is flanked by palms, inset with decorative niches, and adorned with gilded steeples. In its center is an imposing carved gate: when the gate is swung open the set unfolds to reveal in- folded interior playing spaces. Through clever reconfiguration, a whole exotic world is nestled into the Playhouse's severely restricted stage space. Somehow this scenic necessity to suggest much with little becomes a graceful echo of the restrictive necessities of a musical's book-- and it underlines the beautiful economy of the book Oscar Hammerstein wrote for the "The King And I". With a myriad of personalities, incidents, issues and emotions available in the material by and about the absolute monarch who decided to open Siam to the West and the English governess he hired to assist him with the perilous process, Hammerstein meticulously selected just those that could be expressed through the means of the American musical, and arranged them with parsimonious skill to tell a large and wise and generous story. Tiny Turtle Lane's version must be even more parsimonious with material means, but it is filled with talent and the wisdom and generosity comes through as strongly as ever it did.
The Richard Rogers score is lush and lovely, and the lighter tunes in it are mainly about the children-- as is most of show's comedy, which comes out of childish playfulness. These things are relatively immune to the changing fashions in comedy-- until children organize themselves into a pressure group, audiences will feel free to laugh at and with them. For me, at least, "The King And I" is especially successful because the moralizing in the script feels like the characters' moralizing, the lessons learned the ones the situation itself teaches those who are forced to act in response to it. We in the American audience are at a comfortable distance, neither "English" or "Siamese", and free to take their situation to heart or view it and them with detachment, if we will. To sing Roger's amazingly expressive score, and to divide the audience sympathy equally in Hammerstein's East meets West culture clash, director Paul Farwell has a pair of first rate leads. Joseph Siriani's King radiates a monarchic self confidence justified by the performer's masterly musicality and precise pointing of a line. Wendy Heyman as Anna is a small bundle of spunk with a "scientific" mind and a capacious heart. This Anna has the born schoolmarm's manipulative wiles and preaching tendencies, but all is forgiven because her way with a song proves her heart is simple and loving and true.
In the featured roles, Michael Duarte as the Kralahome projects a complex and formidable persona. Amy Allen as the King's head wife Lady Thiang makes an impression of great power used with restraint. Allen has a voice of classic proportions, rich and resonant and agile-- which she confines with exquisite sensitivity to expressing the emotions of the moment. Long before it came I was able to anticipate that Allen's "Something Wonderful" would indeed be something wonderful-- which it most emphatically was. Craig Spanner, who plays Lun Tha, the doomed lover of the King's new Burmese wife, also has a gorgeous voice, and his statuesque handsomeness makes him an appealing figure next to Caitlin Mc Kay's ravishingly beautiful Tuptim. However, Spanner's contemporary vocal mannerisms and McKay's edgy vibrato made their renditions of the heartbreakingly lovely duets "We Kiss in the Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" a tad less effective than they might otherwise have been.
These principals are ably supported by dozens of wives and children of all shapes and sizes: Talia Bachman, Becky Baumwoll, Bianca Bratkon, John Cinotta, Kelsey Garvin, Ryan Garvin, Michelle Goldberg, Julia Hausman, Sophie Hornick, Julia Low, Samantha Mirror, Andrea Nahigian, Dominique Pasquarosa, Gino Pasquarosa, Elizabeth Seder, Derek Sacks, Monica Sheikholeslami, Molly Stern, Aaron Stern, Zoe Stern, and Harley Yanoff. Matthew McGrath and Peter Sheilds alternate the role of Prince Chulalongkorn, and Sean Jacobsen and Scot Chaloff that of Anna's son Louis. Whichever team it was at the matinee I attended was good-- but I'm sure the other team is equally so. I do think director Farwell was mistaken, aesthetically, to block a moment for the kids to smile and wave at their families and friends in the audience after "Getting to Know You", but it is a defensible choice, especially in a matinee where most of the audience is composed of family and friends. I suspect that Joseph Siriani's King is a bit broader, too, before such an audience than he is for for grown-ups on week nights. But it may be that such concessions are the secret of Turtle Lane's success-- certainly the management can take a special bow for the performances by children associated with the company, which are disciplined but not so much so as to lose spontaneity. It's not hard to understand why Mrs. Leonowens would want to stay with such exemplary children as long as possible! (Here I'd like to digress and give a belated round of applause to the kids who were in Turtle Lane's "Bye, Bye, Birdie" earlier this season--- I really hated "Birdie", but the performers, especially the youngsters, were just fine.)
Turtle Lane's regular master of costuming miracles Richard Itczak needed help from Val Verge and Molly Trainer to deal with "King"'s challenges, which they did, beautifully. The stage pictures were a feast for the senses, the silken fabrics giving off the illusion that they were being felt as well as seen. The only time I sensed that the Playhouse didn't have the wherewithal to get all the elements of the original show onto its cramped stage was during the dance drama "The Small House of Uncle Thomas". Patricia Strauss re-staged Jerome Robbins' choreography in a way that preserves its Eastern flavor but is within the compass of American amateurs, and her staging's focus is, rightly, on the dramatization as narrator Tuptim's protest against her own enslaved position as the King's posession/wife. But "The Small House of Uncle Thomas", which is one of the pinicles of music theatre, is defeated not just by limited resources, but also by what I can only term contemporary racial squeamishness, and it is likely that any current revival will fall short of full effect of Hammerstein's conception. There is a certain lack of confidence in the aftermath of Tuptim's revolt, too, but by the King's death scene director and cast have regained their emotional security, and the ending carries all its poignant complexity. Turtle Lane deserves to be very proud of its accomplishment in this staging of "The King and I"--- and the rest of us can get away with feeling a little bit proud, too. We are part of a civilization that, for all its faults, gave birth to this supremely civilized entertainment.