Freddie Santos’ staging of “The King and I” is fabulous, etc., etc., etc.

TEACHER Anna (Monique Wilson) gets to know her royal students

A WHITE elephant on stage! How cool is that?

BEFORE catching an evening performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” last weekend with friends Paul and Ivy at Resorts World Manila’s Newport Performing Arts Theater, I was bracing myself to be underwhelmed.

Not only is “The King and I” almost as old as the name Siam itself, I find it a bit too wholesome compared to more recent hit musicals with grittier themes like “Evita,” “Miss Saigon” and even “Wicked.”

“The King and I” was probably a crowd-pleaser during its time, but can anything be more visually engaging than, say, “The Lion King” and “Phantom of the Opera?”

But I was wrong, very wrong. What was supposed to be another humdrum night of diminished expectations soon turned into one enchanting evening of surprises galore as veteran stage director Freddie Santos dusted off and treated us to his vision of a 60-year-old staple.

Broadway debut

Before it was turned into a movie musical in 1956 starring Deborah Kerr and the iconic Yul Brynner, “The King and I,” as we know it today, debuted on Broadway in the early ’50s (also featuring the relatively new Brynner as the King).
Prior to watching Santos’ version, I haven’t seen any previous staging of “The King and I.” All I had working for me were hazy recollections of the movie version, which I got to see on TV as an impressionable seven-year-old.

But, apart from the musical’s signature songs, certain images, such as Anna’s huge skirt, Lun Tha’s biceps ;-), Tuptim’s tragic end and poor Eliza’s magic-realist

TUPTIM (Tanya Manalang) and Lun Tha (Lorenz Martinez) kiss in the shadow

travails on the royal Siamese stage, have remained etched in my mind.

“The King and I” virgin

In short, even as a “King and I” virgin I know what works for this iconic musical. I have quite a number of pre-conceived notions about it that people behind this latest production must satisfy, even surpass, if they are to earn my kudos. And, for the most part, they did.

Apart from Santos’ brisk staging and spot-on blocking, the musical benefitted tremendously from its performers, particularly the formidable pair of Leo Valdez (as the King) and Monique Wilson (as Anna Leonowens).

Having played the role of the Engineer, another flamboyant Asian character, countless times in “Miss Saigon,” Valdez could probably essay the role of the King with his eyes closed. He could also ham it up and do a caricature based on Brynner’s original version.

Instead, Valdez tried to breathe life to the character on his own terms—funny yet tragic, adamant yet a closet softie—with a consistent swagger that’s both imperious and hilarious.

We find Valdez’s fabricated accent, a strange amalgam of Thai, American and Filipino with a dash of British, sometimes hard to decipher, but his superb singing voice was as clear as day.

Heartfelt portrayal

In a land where innate musical talents abound, Wilson doesn’t happen to be one of the country’s best singers. But what she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for with her heartfelt portrayal of Anna.

SPARKS eventually fly as two accomplished actors, Leo Valdez (the King) and Wilson, share the stage

WITH her rich, textured voice, soprano Gina Respall is perfect for the role of Lady Thiang

You could almost see and feel her emotions, especially her longing for late husband Tom and her empathy for star-crossed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, with every changing lilt in her voice and minute expression on her face and body.

A simple scene, for instance, like the King finally granting her wish to have her own house was all the excuse Wilson needed to display her superb acting prowess. For where we sat, we could see her instantly tearing up with a mix of joy, relief and triumph written all over her face. We feel for you, Anna, we really do!

Acting sparks again flew when she and the King had a final confrontation scene over Tuptim’s fate. Anna’s anger was palpable, and as Wilson made her character’s feelings known, a visible spray of saliva gushed from her mouth. It may not look, ah, cinematic, but that’s what raw, spontaneous emotions on stage are made of.

That’s why, Direk Freddie, it’s really a disservice to your actors to have a pair of anachronistic jumbotrons (humongous monitors) on both sides of the stage simultaneously capturing huge, sometimes unflattering close-ups of Wilson and company’s numerous acting moments.

Ditch ’em, Direk Freddie!

I’m no stage actor, but isn’t it an established fact that there’s a big difference between acting on stage and in front of the cameras? Since stage acting requires larger-than-life movements as well as exaggerated facial expressions, it translates rather poorly on the big screen, where a more subtle approach is needed.

I hope you shut them off until the end of the musical’s run, and let your actors’ voices and body movements convey their characters’ and the musical’s message across. The huge venue may be set within a casino, but this is a theater production we’re supposed to be witnessing, not a Lady Gaga concert.

Gina Respall (Lady Thiang), Lorenz Martinez (Lun Tha) and Tanya Manalang (Tuptim) also did wonderfully, both as actors and singers, in their respective roles.

Blessed with a rich and textured voice, Respall seems born to essay the role of Lady Thiang. Well, in fact, she did, in previous stagings of the “The King and I” in Manila and London. Manalang, with her crystal-clear, woman-child voice, reminded me of a younger Lea Salonga. Too bad, and I’m not being mean when I say this, that she’s a tad too

ANTON Posadas (Chulalongkorn) and James Ketcher (Louis)

short to probably portray certain roles.

Despite the absence of changing canvas backdrops in favor of giant video walls, set designer Jo Tecson was able to come up with a convincingly fabulous set fit for royalty.

And what’s Siam without the elephant? The young and young at heart are sure to have a ball at the sight of a moving life-size white elephant designed by Mountain Rock Production.

Rajo Laurel, who did Anna and the King’s costumes, also delivered with just the right on-stage touches, but still remaining true to the period. Aksana Sidarava, who designed the costumes for the rest of the “Siamese” cast, more than held her own.

Poor Eliza as I know her

And what became of my favorite scene featuring poor Eliza. It was just as I remembered it when I first saw the segment decades ago on TV: wonderful, awesome and brimming with a great deal of irony that married unlikely nuances from both East and West.

In the hands of a lesser director, the musical within a musical would either have fallen flat or stuck out from the rest of the production, but not in Santos’ capable and tempered hands.

And finally, after all these decades, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music still works. I’ve read somewhere that a musical’s greatness as well as across-the-board appeal doesn’t rest on complicated arrangements and hifalutin’ lyrics.

On the contrary, simple, but apt lyrics and catchy melodies can go the extra mile. A musical that leaves audiences humming its signature songs as they leave the theater (something I can’t say for either “Miss Saigon” or “Wicked”) is destined to last long and perhaps even become a classic. “The King and I” is definitely one of them.

ANNA shares a happy moment with her students, the children of one father by different mothers

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