Originally published in the Weekender, BusinessWorld
The King and I
Until Oct. 27
Newport Performing Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila, Newport Blvd., Newport City Cybertourism Zone, Pasay City
WHAT’S THERE to like about an imperious king with a harem of women and 67 children, a feminist who was born ahead of her time, and a clash between the cultures of the East and West?
Apparently, a lot.
Considering that this is a 61-year-old musical from an even older book of fiction (Anna and the King of Siamby Margaret Landon, published in 1944), which, in turn, was based on the mid-19th century experiences of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, it’s easy enough to assume that the retelling of this story would be antiquated and archaic, if not altogether dissonant with the modern world. After all, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the music and book for this unusual story in 1950, it was in an age where the East remained much of a mystery to the West.
However, in the years since Ms. Leonowens first set foot in what once was Siam, the country has changed its name to Thailand and become a constitutional monarchy (as opposed to an absolute one). Many women all over the world have assumed their God-given rights to coexist as an equal to man; in fact, in 1932, Thailand was one of the first Asian countries to grant women the right to suffrage. Moreover, the era of imperialism has moved on to the age of independence.
That said, Resorts World Manila’s The King and I seems disadvantaged, at first glance, by this unique hurdle that its predecessor — the well-loved The Sound of Music— was spared of during its run: how to make this piece of history relevant to modern viewers. Fortunately, and I say this with much pride, this production was more than up to task. Eventually, we come to realize that what ties us to this piece of history is not so much the socio-political implications of King Mongkut’s decisions as ruler of his realm or even Anna Leonowens’ complicated relationship with the King. What connects with us is what connects people on so many levels, be they from clashing cultures of the far reaches of the world — music and art.
It has to be stated outright that RWM’s The King and I is an absolutely grand budget-busting spectacle with no expenses spared, it seems. The period costumes designed and executed by RWM’s resident costumer Aksana Sidarava and well-known couture designer Rajo Laurel are breathtakingly gorgeous. Then you have the stage design and props by Jo Tecson that conjure the ambience of an old but breathing Siam. The sets are elaborate, regal, and not garish at all. Tack on live orchestral music by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra and add the pride of the Newport Performing Arts Theater — the jawdropping 30 x 8-meter LED screen that provides panoramic depth to the sets — and you have the bare bones of a play that rivals international theater in production values. From start to finish, The King and Iis an impressive visual and musical feast.
With such a huge investment, it becomes more imperative that the casting for the roles of King Mongkut and Mrs. Anna, as well as the other characters of the play, be spot on. To have spent so much only to be thwarted by a lack of chemistry among its actors would have been truly devastating. Yet once again, fortune favors this production with an engaging all-Filipino cast that imparts a living soul to the characters they play.
Hands down, the veterans in the cast are perfect in every way. Leo Tavarro Valdez as the King of Siam is immeasurable in this role. He is larger than life and truly kingly in bearing. He depicts the King as arrogant yet charmingly charismatic. Mr. Valdez makes the stage seem even bigger than it already is with his presence. Monique Wilson as Mrs. Anna Leonowens is less of a damsel in distress than a bullish servant of truth, even at the expense of an easy relationship with the halls of power. An accomplished singer and actress, she essays her role with the delicate grace of a 19th-century lady but with the steel of a 21st-century woman.
In this day and age, it might be difficult for some to empathize with the character of Lady Thiang, the loyal head wife, but Gina Respall injects so much dignity in her that one sees her love not as a failing but as a strength. Ms. Respall holds one of the best moments in the play and lives up to the promise of every second.
Happily, the young actors are no pushovers, either. Tanya Manalang, last seen as Liesl in The Sound of Music, seems to have grown up overnight as Tuptim. Her voice is crisp, clear, and an absolute pleasure to listen to. She pairs off wonderfully with Lorenz Martinez as an amazing Lun Tha. These ill-fated young lovers bring certain heartbreak and a tear to everyone’s eye.
Anton Posadas (Prince Chulalongkorn) and James Gabriel Ketcher (Mrs. Anna’s young son Louis), together with the other children in the cast, are delightfully spontaneous. Young Posadas is particularly effective as the proud heir to his father’s throne.
Director Freddie R. Santos’ brilliant reshaping of The King and I hews closely to the original but goes a different direction in some ways. Noteworthy is his take on the relationship of the King and Mrs. Anna. RWM’s The King and Iskirts around the edges and never pushes beyond the limits of an unsaid attraction. More than a romantic interest, Mrs. Anna assumes the role of a moral compass to the King. It is this relationship that strikes a strong chord among viewers — the blossoming of a mutual respect that is borne of the King’s recognition of a woman’s influence in his life. It is wonderful to witness this unfold on stage.
Then too, perhaps it is because we are Asians ourselves that RWM’s The King and Idoes not feel totally alien to Filipino viewers. Our eastern sensibilities, albeit now dimly muted by years of colonization, still recognize some of these traits that Westerners find baffling — the extended family, the subservient wife, even the almost absolute authority of kings (or fathers). Still, there are plenty of surprises in the play to make even longtime theater patrons gasp with delight.
“The Small House of Uncle Thomas” deserves special mention as one of the many highlights of the almost three-hour production. There’s also the delightful animatronics elephant which has the kids in the audience begging their parents for one.
If there’s any lingering doubt that Resorts World Manila’s productions can stand tall amid the international theater scene, all one has to do is watch The King and I. Certainly, their faith in the viability of local Philippine theater is admirable. But by putting their money where their heart is, Resorts World Manila elevated it to a noble advocacy. RWM’s The King and I is proudly Filipino and truly world-class.