Review: 'King and I' is something wonderful

Posted at 09/15/2012 3:45 PM | Updated as of 09/15/2012 4:30 PM

MANILA, Philippines -- The cast of "The King and I" led by former "Miss Saigon" stars Leo Valdez and Monique Wilson received a strong standing ovation during the premiere night of Resorts World Manila's latest theatrical offering on Friday night.

"The King and I" is the Resorts World Manila's follow up to its long-running production of "The Sound of Music," and all indications point to another successful run for this well-loved, albeit controversial, Broadway classic.

If "The King and I" does break the record set by its predecessor, it is definitely well-earned, thanks in large part to director Freddie Santos, who made full use of the cavernous stage of the Newport Performing Arts Theater to create a visual spectacle that is tight, well paced and surprisingly affecting.

Despite its lenthy running time -- the musical ended past 11 p.m. -- Santos managed to keep the action moving, using short musical interludes -- including a parade with a life-sized white elephant -- to keep the audience glued while they prepare for the scene changes.

The set design by Jo Tecson, who is more associated with concert productions, were also simple yet elaborate at the same time. Using the intricate Thai carvings done in gold as his key design motif, Tecson and Santos (who is a sought-after concert director) filled up the stage with gigantic backdrops to convey the grandeur and size of Thailand's grand palaces and temples.

Resorts World Manila's much ballyhooed giant LED screen was also well utilized as it gave the scenery depth without calling too much attention. For the opening scene in the port with Anna Leonowens (Wilson) and her son Louis arriving from Singapore, the screen showed the sea with the outline of the Thai palace in the background with ships docking in the foreground. For the scenes in the Palace, the screen conveyed the expanse of the royal compound, seamlessly integrated with the set.

My only quibble with the "concert" style staging was the use of video screens on the side that show the stage proceedings TV style with close ups since they tend to de-focus the audience's attention to the other things happening on stage -- particularly in the finale. (I missed out on what was happening on another part of the stage, since the video screens were showing a close up of the Thai prince's closing speech, well delivered by child actor Anton Posadas.)

But more than the staging, "The King and I" also boasts of engaging performances from all of the principal actors. Although the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic will always be associated with Yul Brynner's tour de force performance on stage and film, this local staging was a true ensemble effort, despite having well-known stars in the lead roles.

Gina Respall, who reprised her role of Lady Thiang, the King's lead wife, which she played in a West End production, was a picture of grace and intelligence. And her solo of "Something Wonderful" was a real highlight of the musical, performed with effortless control and power. Moreover, she imbued the song with a strength of character that's often overlooked in past productions.

Indeed the musical's gender politics were front and center in this staging. Apart from Respall, Wilson, a known women's rights activist, also gave Anna an almost modern feminist touch, which helped overshadow the musical's racist undertones, bringing the debate away from question of cultural superiority, and into a more universal arena of human equality.

Wilson's Anna isn't a stand-in for the supposed more refined Western ways, a stubborn Caucasian woman who is probably more seduced by the exotic culture of the Far East. She elevated Anna -- or at least made it more obvious compared to previous productions -- into a true teacher who's only interest is in spreading the truth. Wilson's nuanced performance -- her facial expressions said it all -- also bravely skirted the romance, making Anna more of a politcal ally, thus making her the King's true equal. Old-fashioned purists may be aghast with this kind of representation, but kudos to Wilson for bringing out out the core of the cultural conflict. And, yes, after all of these years, she still sounded fine. There's a clarity in her voice that brings out the best in Rodgers' melodies like "Whistle A Happy Tune" and "Hello Young Lovers."

The musical actually boasts of many outstanding vocal performances. Tanya Manalang (Tuptim) and Lorenz Martinez (Lun Tha), as the Burmese lovers, soared in the popular duets "We Kissed in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed," providing the musical with the true romance it needed.

A discussion on “The King and I” won’t be complete without mentioning the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” number. This dance created by the great Jerome Robbins is a high point in the musical and credit goes to Santos for getting professional dancers from the Philippine Ballet Theater to do justice to the iconic choreography.

Then there's Valdez, who has the difficult job of doing a role that will always be remembered because of Brynner. (I had a chance of seeing Brynner in "The King and I" in the US. I was only in the balcony but you could feel his presence nonetheless -- without video screen close-ups.)

Valdez didn't attempt to copy Brynner's macho posturing but gave the King a more calculating attitude. His take on the soliloquy "It's A Puzzlement" wasn't about frustration but more of a stream of consciousness realization. Valdez presented a King that over-thinks, much more rationale but one who is bounded by expectations. It's not as complete as Brynner's but really who else can match that kind of presence?

With its fantastic cast, a very effective director and a staging worthy of its budget, "The King and I" truly deserves to break Resort World's records.