The King and I at Washington County Playhouse really is “Something Wonderful,” as the classic musical receives a visually stunning reinterpretation from a very gifted cast.
Splendidly directed by Shawn R. Martin and musically directed by Elizabeth Wagner, The King and I is a Golden Age musical from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens travels to Siam with her young son to work as a private tutor for the royal children of the King of Siam. The King is attempting to modernize Siam to build an alliance with Western countries and is frequently challenged intellectually, culturally and, eventually romantically, by Anna. Meanwhile, Tuptim, a slave to the King and Lun Tha, Tuptim’s lover from her home country, attempt to carry on a forbidden relationship.
Portraying the vastly challenging and culturally opposite relationship at the heart of the story, Jennifer L. Pagano and Andre Brown give outstanding performances as Anna and the King of Siam. Pagano is phenomenal as Anna Leonowens. Beneath the strength and determination often presented in this classic character, Pagano also shows a gentle and sensitive side while advising her son and the King’s children, or aiding the secret young lovers. Her voice is lovely and she maintains an impressively accurate, yet not over dramatic, English accent.
In a traditional fashion for this particular title character, Andre Brown truly steals the show as the King of Siam. Brown displays a powerful monarch who is frightening and certain of his ways in public, but very doubtful and conflicted in private moments with Anna or his son. His solo “A Puzzlement” is a scene-stealing moment in the production as Brown displays a truly dimensional character challenged by the rapidly changing world. Of course, he has numerous comedic “lost-in-translation” moments with Pagano and is never afraid to go completely over-the-top with some of the loveable running gags. The chemistry between Pagano and Brown is overflowing and “Shall We Dance?”, easily the most well-known song from the show when the pair ballroom dance after debating some cultural and personal differences, was also a great highlight in the production.
Arielle Pizana and Tim Diehl were superb as supporting young lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha. Pizana appears frail and delicate, but showcases a surprising strength and a gorgeous, shimmering soprano voice in her solo “My Lord and Master.” Diehl was very passionate and the love duets in both acts were beautiful. A lovely technical element occurred as a blue wash covered the stage whenever the lovers entered their dream world during the duets. Megan Lesznar was excellent as Lady Thiang, the King’s first and favorite wife . Her deep, rich alto voice during her solo “Something Wonderful” truly was wonderful, as was her warm and caring character choice.
Mike Heyser did exceedingly well in the often underrated role of the Kralahome, the King’s main advisor. He created an authoritative character and was especially powerful during his confrontation with Pagano immediately following “Shall We Dance?.” Director Shawn R. Martin was sincere and charming in a cameo role as Englishman and Anna’s old friend, Sir Edward Ramsay. Dan Ritchey and Nate LaDow also excelled in their featured roles as Captain Orton and Phra Alack, respectively.
The King and I famously features a large children’s chorus and the young actors in this production were very impressive. Sean Alsip as Anna’s son, Louis, was earnest and loveable and Cade Werner gave a strong performance as heir apparent to the throne, Prince Chulalongkorn. Both of the young men displayed impeccable diction and were excellent in their scenes together when they pondered the changing ways in their different worlds and if their parents had the right or wrong ideas.
Ella Snyder also shone in a nice featured speaking and dancing role as Princess Ying Yaowalak. Her scene where she read her letter begging Anna not to leave in halting English was very touching. The adorable children’s chorus also features Katie Getz, Madeline Gross, Bryne Keller, Brenna O’Reilly, Taryn O’Reilly, Arrick Smith, Stephen Sungenis, Kathrine Sungenis, Maria Sungenis, Therese Sungenis, Aven Tolentino, Jacob Wilson, Noah Wilson, and Landon Wilson as the Royal Princes and Princesses. Allison Moore, Mary Beth Raines, Cara Ritchey, and Robyn Thompson give beautiful and often humorous performances as the Royal Wives.
The ballet in Act II entitled “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” (based on Tuptim’s interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) featured impressively fluid choreography by Jules Happy Rone and Alyssa Getz, Abigail Moore, Ella Snyder, Siobhan Sungenis, and Katie Tolentino display exceptional skills as the Royal Dancers.
In addition to a talented cast, the production also features visually stunning technical elements. The scenery, designed by Jim and Sue Eckel, features beautiful watercolor paintings in oriental styles of locations around the Siamese palace. Sensibly to save space on such a small stage with a large cast, each backdrop is connected to opening and closing panels on the back wall, so characters can change locations as easily as flipping pages in a storybook.
The lighting, designed by Laura Martin, is lovely in exotic shades of yellows and blues. Dramatic lighting changes whenever characters entered a dream world or a memory during their solos greatly enhanced the mood of each number.
Barbie Gross and Lily Gross’ costumes were exquisite. Various silk and satin robes in vibrant colors with oriental patterns and detailed bead work popped on the already lovely stage and Anna’s beautiful English hoop skirts and ball gowns were a great contrast while remaining very period appropriate.
Run Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The King and I plays through May 16, 2015 at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater – 44 North Potomac Street, in Hagerstown, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 739-7469.