Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Royal Pain

By Maureen Needham

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Ghosts stalked through TAC last week, and they were tangible enough in their effects to unsettle the audience that had gathered to see the roadway Series revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I. Onlookers haunted by the memory of a precocious Hayley Mills or by the charismatic Yul Brynner in the role of his lifetime went away disappointed. To speak bluntly, though, the ghosts didn't cause the real problems in this Tony Award-winning production--it was the flesh-and-blood, here-and-now principals.

The mature Hayley Mills, as the English schoolteacher Anna, certainly looked nothing like the winsome child star of Pollyanna. But whatever possessed her to believe that she could undertake a singing role? It was a pity to see this beautiful, talented woman struggling so. Her successes have been many and long, starting with her career as a child actress in six Walt Disney films and continuing as an adult with stage appearances in classic dramas by Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and Anton Chekhov. Even so, reviewers of this touring production have not been kind to her--and with reason, one might add. When she intoned "Hello Young Lovers," the tremors in her voice were not due to deep emotion. Admittedly, it must be difficult to compete with the thousand different memories of this lovely ballad, but an off-key rendition won't fly in Nashville, where practically any waitress in town could manage it better.

Vee Talmadge, as the King of Siam, did his best to dispel the ghost of the bald-headed Brynner when he marched onstage with flowing locks, but he had problems of his own. When you have a tough act to follow, it is wise to be original rather than a carbon copy--but this does not mean simply changing one's hairstyle. This actor had a unique opportunity to open up the king's character to a more sensitive reading, one more in tune with the sensibilities of the '90s, and he blew it.

The King and I may be greatly beloved in the United States, but even the film of it is banned in Thailand because it degrades and insults a progressive leader revered as the savior of his country. The racial stereotypes shifted onto the character of King Mongkut may have passed muster in the '50s, but they appall us in the '90s. As such, Talmadge could have done something to address the racial slurs that demeaned the King as barbaric, cunning, childlike, impulsive, ignorant, oversexed, and so forth. He chose instead to downplay the dignity of a man torn by a clash of cultural values.

As the politics are portrayed in this remarkably ethnocentric version, the British lay in wait to gobble up the country, but all it takes to impress the visiting dignitaries is an English schoolmarm who oversees an elaborate dinner party. Ipso facto, everyone agrees that the Thai aren't savages, because they can eat with forks and wear the latest in Paris fashions. The gunboats turn around and head home. End of story. Yeah, right!

Ghost of a chance
Hayley Mills and Vee Talmadge, doing what they can in The King and I. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If the stars provided the dimmest of light in this production, some of the minor leads in The King and I created lasting impressions. Helen Yu was unforgettable in the role of the King's favorite wife, Lady Thiang. Her training at Juilliard and her operatic experience at the Metropolitan Opera showed to great effect. Possessor of a gorgeously rich, vibrant voice, she deepened her performance even more by giving her character a sense of innate dignity.

Ernest Abuba as the Kralahome was also outstanding. He interpreted the King's prime minister as a well-rounded character, even though he had little to do but stand around with folded arms and look intense. Luzviminda Lor as the slave girl Tuptim looked beautiful, but she also sang beautifully. She threw herself into the role of pathetic victim in a spirited way, and with an energy that this slowly paced production woefully lacked.

And, yes, the kids. Who could forget the charming "March of the Siamese Children," in which tiny tots parade in, one at a time, formally kowtow to the King, bow to Anna, and scamper back to the safety of their mothers' arms? It's a show-stopper every time.

The highlight of the evening was the ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." The sets and costumes, already quite sumptuous, shimmered and shone even more lavishly in this gold-studded entertainment. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, was at the height of his creative powers when he originally conceived this dramatic piece, based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. He used poses and postures that accurately quote from classical Siamese dance but at other times burst out into jazzy contemporary rhythms.

The dancers in this production were impressive in their ability to blend narrative gesture with stylized Thai dance forms. Khamla Somphanh as Eliza and Mario Camacho as Simon Legree stood out in particular. It is high praise to report that no one in the corps de ballet took a backseat to any ghosts of productions past. In an evening marked by radically uneven performances, the ballet by itself was well worth the price of admission.

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