Tag Archives: Bartlett Sher

“The King and I” at the Bushnell Transports You to Another World

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_0_edited

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

When a spectacular Broadway revival goes on tour, the concern is always that the necessary adjustments in both cast size and staging to fit a variety of venues will diminish its effectiveness. Luckily the national tour of of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I Has been adapted brilliantly.

Yes, the opening scene is quite as specular on a proscenium stage, but it is effective. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage.  From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.

What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture.  We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.

For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.

She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter.  After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.

Two subplots figure prominently in the show.  The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.

The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire.  The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.

Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters.  Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life.  She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.

The King is equally complex.  He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking.  But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”

This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.

Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein.  His direction has produced many fine moments. I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna.  Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.

King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy - smaller_3_edited

Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao. Photo by Michael Murphy

Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?”  In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.

It is surprising how the changes in the cast have affected the production. In the revival at Lincoln Center, Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang dominated the stage. They overshadowed .Ken Wantanbe, as the King.

In this production, it is the reverse. Jose Llana – who took over the role of the King on Broadway dominates the stage. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person.  He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality.  The one criticsm is that perhaps he overplays some of the humor in the role, appearing at times like a schoolboy pleased with his own jokes.

The other standout is Manna Nichols as Tuptin. When she is on stage, it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna is good – she has a nice voice and inhabits the role, but she doesn’t bring it totally to live. You don’t feel the emotions. This is especially obvious at the ending which lacks the emotional punch it needs.

Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang has a somewhat similar problem. Professional and very good, but lacking one thing.

For a national tour, the entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.

Choreographer Christopher Gatelli has adapted and modified the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

The orchestra is larger than normal on tour and while the cast is reduced in size, only occasionally is it noticeable.

It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should see this production at the Bushnell through June 4. Tickets are available at Bushnell..

King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited

Photo by Michael Murphy

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“Oslo” Gives Us a Compelling Look at the Arab-Israeli Peace Accords

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Playwright J. R. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”

But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations.

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Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success. Yet neither Larsen not the Norwegians got very much public acknowledgement of their efforts.

Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.

At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.

It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.

Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.

In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.

So much of the play is compelling that it seems peevish to complain about the length. With two intermissions, is runs nearly three hours and by the end you are glad it is over. It needs some judicious cutting.

Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.

Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Ben Furey – he and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.

Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt.  Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic.  Dariush Kashani as Hassam and Anthony Asisi as Quiri are aslo outstanding.  In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.

Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing. It runs through Aug. 28 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. BUT plans have already been announced to move it to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater in March for an extended “Broadway” run. The delay is caused by commitments that the cast members – including Mays – have. At the Beaumont it will be eligible for Tony award nominations.

For tickets visit lct.org.

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The handshake between the Israeli and Arab negotiators. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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The negotiations. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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