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

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Director Mark Waldrop.
Director Mark Waldrop.

Wow, what a big, exciting job it’s been mounting The King and I. This is a story that demands the most of every department – a massive, opulent set (big enough to do that polka around), sumptuous costumes (Anna’s hoop skirted dresses are so heavy she had to build up her stamina to perform in them), complicated backstage choreography and quick changes (we’ve used every trick in the book to make our cast – large for the Olney – seem even larger). And, of course, the children, two casts worth.

I’ve always loved The King and I. It’s my favorite R&H show. The music is glorious and the story and characters are so vivid. But admiring something and mastering all the intricacies of directing it are two different things. So I’ve been on a learning curve through the process, which has made it all the richer for me. As I studied the script I was struck by Oscar Hammerstein II’s structuring of the story (he wrote the libretto as well as the lyrics). He manages to meld timeless character-based humor (and the show is so much funnier than I ever remembered) with gut wrenching suspense and drama, sometimes whipsawing from one to the other without missing a beat. It is masterful.

Eileen Ward (Anna) and Paolo Montalban (The King). Photo by Sonie Mathew.
Eileen Ward (Anna) and Paolo Montalban (The King). Photo by Sonie Mathew.

I feel especially blessed with my two stars, Paolo Montalban as the King and Eileen Ward as Anna. Both have played their roles before. Paolo has played Lun Tha the young romantic lead, many times, including in the last Broadway revival. But he’s just reached the age where he’s ready to play the King — and, boy, is he ever ready. He had his first go at it recently in Hawaii. Eileen understudied Anna in a major tour several years ago and has played it in stock. So both these fine performers arrived with the head start of being familiar with their songs and lines. But as the three of us delved into the text, we kept making discoveries about the characters and the evolution of their relationship that surprised and delighted us. We’ve really had a wonderful three-way collaboration in this show that’s not quite like anything I’ve experienced in the theater. And I have to give the credit to Hammerstein, because it’s all in there.

Eileen Ward (Anna) and the children. Photo by Sonia Matthew.
Eileen Ward (Anna) and the children. Photo by Sonea Mathew.

Tara Jeanne Vallee, a choreographer with whom I love working, has done a gorgeous job with the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, distilling and adapting the iconic Jerome Robbins staging while adding her own point of view. Our supporting leads are especially strong, and the entire company has been a joy to work with.

Olney Theatre Center has pulled out all the stops on this one. I’m very proud of it.  It’s a terrific family show that I think will please audiences who are familiar with the piece and those coming to it for the first time. So try to come – I think you’ll be happy you did.

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