'The King and I': A classic made even better

Posted: November 18, 2011

There's something about the Walnut Street Theatre's production of The King and I that feels as comfortable and inviting as, well, the 2010 holiday show, Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Maybe it's because Marc Robin returns to the helm as director and choreographer, this time taking on Rodgers and Hammerstein's much-loved musical and Jerome Robbins' Thai-fusion choreography.

Anna and the King of Siam - Margaret Langdon's novelized 1944 version of Anna Leonowens' adventures as Civil War-era governess to the children of King Mongkut - serves as the story's source material. But most audiences arrive far more familiar with Yul Brynner's career-making 1956 film performance as the King, with Deborah Kerr as Anna (and Marni Nixon taking over songbird duties, trilling favorites such as "Shall We Dance?" and "Getting to Know You").

The Walnut's production honors that familiarity, its costume shop, led by designer Colleen Grady, working overtime to produce the hoop-skirted confections and countless glittery, silky, needlepointed outfits worn by the Siamese men, women, and children. Its set, too, by Robert Andrew Kovach, hung with red and purple fabric, elephants, dragons, a Buddha with moving arms, backdrop painted in technicolor red and orange, and two-dimensional palm trees, contributes to the sense of fantasy and escape.

The King, of course - Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, also returning to the Walnut after his Barrymore-nominated turn as the Engineer in Miss Saigon - appears barefoot, shirtless, and bald. Unlike most post-Brynner Kings, he, and much of the cast, are actually Asian, a significant change. Saghuyop channels his inner Brynner with a fine dramatic performance, by turns fierce, gentle, and endearing, though he's unable to carry the focus of his solo tune, "A Puzzlement," perhaps the show's only weak moment.

However, while Manna Nichols' Burmese slave girl Tuptim sings a downright heartbreaking "We Kiss in a Shadow" with Austin Ku's Lun Tha, Rachel York's Anna elevates the whole production. Like an emissary from Broadway's golden age, she brings a little Kerr and a whole lot of Julie Andrews to her smart performance and lets loose a gorgeous voice that, much like those originals, would reach every seat in the house even without electronic support.

Robin allows for innovations, as well. The Robbins showcase, Tuptim's presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin for the King's European guests, gets a makeover here, replacing his earlier stylized Burmese dance moves and heavy golden headdresses with a truly lovely ballet, complete with tutus, pointe shoes, and a magical pas de deux. What a pleasure, when nostalgia and innovation combine to make a classic even more so.


The King and I

Through Jan. 8 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10 to $95. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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