The Nov. 12 opening of “The King and I” marked Mt. Hebron’s second consecutive fall musical in two years, after the successful 2013 revival of “The Sound of Music.” As such, the show featured an array of the school’s finest vocal, theatrical and dancing talent, with a cast and crew led by acclaimed director, Math teacher Mr. Tom Sankey. The production also showed on Nov. 13 and 14 and will close on Saturday, Nov. 15.
Much like “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I” features a musical score composed by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical is based upon Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which was inspired by the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens, who was governess to the royal children of King Mongkut of Siam (present-day Thailand) during the 1860s.
“The King and I” opened in 1951 at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, starring Gertrude Lawrence as Anna and Yul Brynner as the King. It garnered immediate acclaim and accolades that included Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actress and Best Featured Actor. A film adaptation was produced by 20th Century Fox in 1956 and also starred Brynner alongside Deborah Kerr, who played Anna. “The King and I” has been revived several times and is recognized as one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history.
The musical opens as Anna (junior Kendall Grove), a widowed English schoolteacher, and her young son Louis (junior Mike Olson) arrive on the shore of Siam, where Anna has been hired to serve as a teacher to the children of the King (junior Jacob Kempic) as part of his plan to bring Siam into the modern age.
Anna is coarsely welcomed by the King’s right-hand man, the Kralahome (sophomore Ilan Pluznik), initiating her into a culture where, much to Anna’s shock and chagrin, women (and men, for that matter) are not treated with respect in the manner to which she is accustomed. Anna is greatly displeased upon learning that the King has arranged for her and Louis to live in his palace, contradicting a promise he made to provide her with her own house.
Meanwhile, the King is presented with a gift from the neighboring nation of Burma: a lovely young woman called Tuptim (sophomores Emma Kate Davis and Alyssa Tschirgi). Tuptim was escorted to Siam by a young man named Lun Tha (junior Tharen Rice) to take her place as one of the King’s many wives. However, Tuptim and Lun Tha are secretly in love, delighting in their tryst but mourning that they can never truly be together.
The issue of the King’s broken promise regarding Anna’s house lays the foundation for a rocky relationship between the two, whereupon Anna is frustrated with his closed-minded ways and the King is puzzled by her desire to make changes. Nevertheless, Anna is enchanted when she makes the acquaintance of the King’s children and his wives, including head wife Lady Thiang (seniors Naomi Abankwah and Carly Wakefield).
The children are alarmed at Anna’s propositions about the world beyond Siam, leading Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (sophomore Sam Bishop) to oppose her teachings and authority. Chaos ensues, and a confrontation with the King results in him belittling Anna, whereupon she states that she has decided to leave Siam.
Although Anna is displeased and intent upon returning to England, Lady Thiang manages to convince her to stay by appealing to her with the King’s sensitive side. Thus, Anna resolves to help the King and his subjects impress visiting dignitaries, among them Sir Edward Ramsey (senior Cole Watts). As she grows closer with the King and his family, Anna comes to appreciate the King’s dream for Siam and his true personality as a sensitive and misunderstood man. Through conflicts and tribulations, Anna finds that only by traversing the lines that divide them can she hope to make a difference during her time in Siam.
The show is enriching and lends to an understanding of the state of the globe beyond the United States during a crucial epoch in human history, when discrimination was not only widespread, but also commonplace. “The King and I” appeals to younger viewers in its endearing charm and impresses older audience members with its clever humor. Above all, the show projects a delicately executed balance of genuine sincerity and colorful extravagance that has made it so widely beloved over the years.
In his first leading role, Kempic has made his debut as a rising star at Mt. Hebron after having participated in several other Sankey shows. With a classic wide-legged stance and emphatic gestures, Kempic embodies the King’s awkward façade and dexterously portrays the vulnerability that lies underneath. In “A Puzzlement,” Kempic demonstrated incredible vocal depth with surprising clarity and charming expressions that make his character both likable and perplexingly fascinating.
Grove’s performance as Anna is best described by the word “elegant.” She is an absolute picture of poise and aplomb, and she moves and speaks gracefully. Her lilting voice is sweet but strong when she speaks and when she sings, carrying and ringing clearly with every melody. Her entire presence is reminiscent of a young Julie Andrews as she deftly portrays a dignified, headstrong woman. Her relationship with the royal children is winning and captivating, as shown in the cast’s delightful rendition of “Getting to Know You.”
Kempic and Grove have undeniable chemistry onstage, making a charming pair. The banter between the two is clever and well executed in the show’s light-hearted moments, but both still manage to demonstrate genuine emotion that lends to their portrayal of a strong and personal connection that endears them to viewers. In “Shall We Dance?” the two share a truly precious moment, joining together to waltz playfully across the stage and inciting thunderous applause from the audience.
Double-cast with Tschirgi as the beautiful Princess Tuptim, Davis’ vocals are outstanding. Her range is broad, and when she sings, one can almost hear jaws dropping. Every phrase is crisply enunciated and rings clear as a bell, even when she belts very high notes. In “My Lord and Master,” she skillfully employs expressions to portray the complexity of Tuptim’s emotions as she finds herself and decides to pursue the man she truly loves.
Having previously taken the stage as ’50’s heartthrob Conrad Birdie and Smokey, a ballplayer for the Washington Senators in “Damn Yankees,” Rice as the strapping Lun Tha wows the audience once more with his rich, resounding base tones and stage presence. The romantic connection between Rice and Davis onstage is veritably palpable, demonstrated in an emotional and passionate rendition of “We Kiss in a Shadow,” which is simply blocked out on a darkened stage to let shine the undying devotion of the two lovers.
As the young boys Louis and Prince Chulalongkorn, Olson and Bishop, respectively, embody a boyish seriousness, but to different effects. Through his deliberate use of expression and a strong, confident voice, Bishop successfully portrays the precocious heir to the throne, whose doubts about ruling are parallel to those of his own father, suggesting that the two are more alike than they seem.
Olson’s own expressions lend to Louis’ identity as a young boy stepping up to be a man, staunchly defending his mother. An endearing mother-son relationship is established in “I Whistle A Happy Tune” and is prominent for the duration of the show. When juxtaposed with Bishop, the two create a stark contrast between Eastern and Western culture, both in the mannerisms of their character and their costumes.
Pluznik’s performance as the Kralahome is characterized by strong expressions and gesticulation, often creating a humorous effect in its overt seriousness. His stage presence is undeniable and lends to the perceived sincerity of his character’s devotion to the King.
Abankwah, double-cast with Wakefield as Lady Thiang, demonstrates a great vocal range as she ventures away from past performances as a rich, soulful alto in such roles as Meg Boyd in “Damn Yankees.” In this show, she proficiently executes higher notes, and her voice skills are evident. Abankwah adeptly portrays Lady Thiang’s grace and wisdom as the person with the greatest understanding of the King’s complex nature.
As Sir Edward Ramsey, Watts provides the audience with insight into Anna’s former life in England and adds depth to her character, exemplifying a blatant contrast to the King in his dignified and refined mannerisms.
The cast of the royal subjects’ production of “The Small House of Uncle Tom” accomplished a difficult feat, establishing the similarities between old-age oppression and slavery in the United States. Theatrical elements are employed to execute this “show within a show,” adding to the perception of unambiguous cultural differences between Siam and the Western world. With choreography assistance by senior Bridget Reese, who played Eva, the scene is one of the most memorable parts of the show.
The chorus of the King’s children, comprising students from feeder elementary and middle schools, is, for lack of a better word, positively adorable. They add greatly to the production and represent the younger generation that the King hoped to reform. Their presence in the final scene serves to remind audiences of the key message of the show: that change truly is possible, and that it starts with our youth.
Thanks to costumes coordinated by Ms. Barbara Bogart, this performance is distinctly reflective of the time period and emphasizes the beauty and grace to be found in both contrasting cultures depicted in the show, from lovely hoop skirts to delicate silk garments and intricate headpieces. Hair and make-up were ingeniously executed by English teacher Ms. Samantha Duvall and senior Kate Weiss, putting the finishing details on the refined appearance of each performer and pulling everything together.
The stage crew, led by stage manager senior Erik Schilstra, transitioned seamlessly through scenes and skillfully carried out the crucial jobs unseen by the audience. Lighting director senior Zack Stewart led the tech crew, who worked relentlessly in the booth with follow spots and effects that illuminated the entire production.
The pit orchestra, a small but talented group that featured senior percussionists Ben Bellis and Brandon Breazeale along with Principal Scott Ruehl on the bass, highlighted the vocals and theatricals of the performance.
Under the guidance of Mr. Sankey, choir teacher Mr. Chris Hettenbach and choreographer Ms. Amanda Tschirgi, the cast and crew have truly done it again. Unique directorial choices and carefully executed details make the show relatable for all audiences. As I looked from audience member to audience member after the show, every expression that I saw was one of absolute joy and wonder.
Now in my third year as resident theater critic for The Mountain, I love that my experience as a cast member of several Sankey shows allows me to take a different angle as a member of the audience. Ever since my own Mt. Hebron theater debut as a townsperson in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2011, I have been awestruck by the sheer amount of work and time that goes into each show. Every fall and spring, patrons come in droves from all over the community to delight in these productions, whereupon countless hours of rehearsal and planning pay off, and the result always surpasses every expectation.
It is difficult to overestimate the value that Sankey shows have at Mt. Hebron, and I surprise myself when I say that I enjoy watching them almost as much as I have enjoyed being in them myself. In my final review, I must say that it has truly been my pleasure…et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
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