Wednesday, November 25, 2015


A fine cast, glittering costumes, rich sets, and superior direction and choreography make the Walnut's holiday show this year a Siamese treat, says Wendy Rosenfield.



By Wendy Rosenfield

There’s something about the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of The King and I that feels as comfortable and inviting as, well, its 2010 holiday show, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Maybe it’s because Marc Robin returns to the helm as director and choreographer, this time taking on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved musical and Jerome Robbins’ Thai-fusion choreography.

Anna and the King of Siam — Margaret Langdon’s novelized 1944 version of Anna Leonowens’ adventures as Civil War-era governess to the children of King Mongkut — serves as the story’s source material. But most audiences arrive far more familiar with Yul Brynner’s career-making 1956 film performance as the King, with Deborah Kerr as Anna (and Marni Nixon taking over songbird duties, trilling favorites such as “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You”).

The Walnut’s production honors that familiarity, its costume shop, led by designer Colleen Grady, working overtime to produce the hoop-skirted confections and countless glittery, silky, needlepointed outfits worn by the Siamese men, women, and children. Its set, too, by Robert Andrew Kovach, hung with red and purple fabric, elephants, dragons, a Buddha with moving arms, backdrop painted in technicolor red and orange, and two-dimensional palm trees, contributes to the sense of fantasy and escape.

The King, of course — Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, also returning to the Walnut after his Barrymore-nominated turn as the Engineer in Miss Saigon — appears barefoot, shirtless, and bald. Unlike most post-Brynner Kings, he, and much of the cast, are actually Asian, a significant change. Saghuyop channels his inner Brynner with a fine dramatic performance, by turns fierce, gentle, and endearing, though he’s unable to carry the focus of his solo tune, “A Puzzlement,” perhaps the show’s only weak moment.

However, while Manna Nichols’ Burmese slave girl Tuptim sings a downright heartbreaking “We Kiss in a Shadow” with Austin Ku’s Lun Tha, Rachel York’s Anna elevates the whole production. Like an emissary from Broadway’s golden age, she brings a little Kerr and a whole lot of Julie Andrews to her smart performance and lets loose a gorgeous voice that, much like those originals, would reach every seat in the house even without electronic support.

Robin allows for innovations, as well. The Robbins showcase, Tuptim’s presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the King’s European guests, gets a makeover here, replacing his earlier stylized Burmese dance moves and heavy golden headdresses with a truly lovely ballet, complete with tutus, pointe shoes, and a magical pas de deux. What a pleasure, when nostalgia and innovation combine to make a classic even more so.

Through Jan. 8 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10 to $95. Information: 215-574-3550 or<NO1>cq<NO>

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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