In Review > International

The King and I

PARIS
Théâtre du Châtelet
6/13/14

In Review King I Hdl 614
Lee Blakeley's staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, featuring Lisa Milne as Lady Thiang and Susan Graham as Anna
© Marie-Noëlle Robert — Théâtre du Châtelet

The Théâtre du Châtelet continues to bring Broadway to Paris. Judging by the triumphant reception of the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical The King and I on June 13, Parisians are enjoying the journey. The staging was entrusted to Yorkshire-born Lee Blakeley, whose previous Châtelet successes include Into the Woods (2014), Sunday in the Park with George (2013), Sweeney Todd (2011) and A Little Night Music (2010). The cast was headed by the Anna of Susan Graham — who played Offenbach's Grand Duchess of Gérolstein in Blakeley's 2013 Santa Fe Opera production — and French actor Lambert Wilson's King of Siam. James Holmes conducted the Orchestre Pasdeloup.

Blakeley did not attempt any superfluous interpretive details but provided a classic reading of the 1951 show, which looked terrific, thanks in part to the outstanding costumes of Sue Blane, who placed Southeast Asian-style glitz opposite extravagant British Victoriana. Graham's initial appearance in a spectacular black crinoline won applause. Opera singers in musicals can be disappointing, their sophisticated vocal techniques getting in the way of direct expression. No such caveats applied to Graham, whose performance was miraculously judged — a thread of golden sound bouncing off a crystal-clear delivery of the text. The role was written for actress Gertrude Lawrence, whose vocal possibilities were, unlike Graham's, severely limited. Not only was the mezzo stylish in the vocal numbers, but her cut-glass English accent and stiff-backed determination as the straitlaced governess also made her a formidable presence opposite Wilson's King, with whom she danced Peggy Hickey's sweeping choreography as if to the manner born. 

It is difficult to forget Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, but Wilson has a rare performing energy and threw himself into the role with such unbridled earnestness that it was easy to overlook a few uneasy vocal moments and occasional stiffness in the dialogue. (The King's accent seemed to be a work in progress.) Wilson and director Blakeley brought added humanity to the show; the King's damaged self-esteem at being described as a "barbarian" underlined the anti-slavery and feminist message of Hammerstein's book. 

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Susan Graham and Lambert Wilson (The King)
© Marie-Noëlle Robert — Théâtre du Châtelet

The Orchestre Pasdeloup let its musical hair down to great effect under Holmes, who picked up cues with deft precision and kept this melodious score on a tight leash. This was particularly important in Act I, which lasts an hour and forty minutes. Even with titles, this was a long stretch of English spoken dialogue for a French audience. After the well-played story of Uncle Thomas, which has some of the piece's most original music, it was down to a finale of heartbreaking sincerity, played to the hilt by Graham and Wilson. Excellent support came from Scots soprano Lisa Milne as the King's number-one wife, Lady Thiang; Milne displayed a mature understanding of the human dramas playing out around her and a voice that glowed with sincerity in the unforgettable number "Something Wonderful." The feather-light soprano of Je Ni Kim and the appealing matinée-idol baritone of Damian Thantrey lent charisma to the young lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, whose romance ends tragically. A mention must also be made of the children in the cast, led by James Clack as Anna's son, Louis, and Noam Guetta as Prince Chulalongkorn, whose eager charm and touching cross-cultural friendship could melt the most cynical of hearts. spacer

STEPHEN J. MUDGE 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6