If you’re wondering why Ash Lawn Opera chose this year to produce Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical The King and I, with its dated themes of conformity and imperialism, look no further than the 20 or so local kids in the cast. Ah, the children, each wrapped in bright silks, collectively looking like a bag of hard candies, beaming adorableness all over the stage—each attracting their parents, grandparents, school chums (and so on) to the opera festival.
Elizabeth Andrews Roberts plays Anna Leonowens, an English widow who lands a post as teacher to the children of the King of Siam in The King and I. Photo from Moore-Coll Photography.
In spite of a few technical flaws (about which more later), the annual festival’s production of the The King and I is gorgeous in its presentation and good entertainment for the kids, as well as those who cart them around. Expertly directed by Broadway veteran Baayork Lee, who played Princess Ying in the original Broadway production, and impeccable in its design, the talent here is top-notch. In a nod to the operatic tradition Rodgers and Hammerstein drew from, the play is performed without amplification.
Elizabeth Andrews Roberts portrays a headstrong yet genteel Anna Leonowens, an English widow who lands a post as teacher to the children of the King of Siam in 1860. The King is brilliantly captured by Seth Mease Carico, a smooth bass baritone who lends swagger and charm to the “barbaric” bigamist ruler. Meanwhile, Roberts’ Leonowens represents all that is English and, therefore, right and good in the world.
The production’s highlight is the play within the play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Tuptim’s theatrical interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” performed in stylized Thai theater with masks and simple props. Where the rest of the play is a British dilution of Siamese culture, the segment explores a Western concept from an Eastern perspective. The mini-drama showcases the production’s overall thoughtfulness—particularly Susan Kikuchi’s choreography, Nuria Carrasco’s costumes. Scott Wirtz-Olsen’s lighting also shines, in particular the water-silk washed effect on the back scrim that is used throughout the show.
That said, there were disconcerting imperfections throughout the performance. One might expect a gaffe or two on opening night, but a nearly a half-dozen missed lighting cues is inexcusable in a production of this caliber. At one point in the first scene the cast was practically in the dark, and at another, fireworks were set off before they were called for in the script. During a somber death scene, the lead actors were forced to ad-lib lines as the children were herded onstage, apparently late for their cue. But most disappointing of all to this writer was Anna’s ball costume, which was flat compared to her other impressive costumes. It resulted in a lack of dramatic flash for the famous romantically charged polka scene.
It is summer, after all, and some of our brains should be on vacation. The King and I is good clean fun. So in that spirit, “Shall we dance?”