“The King and I” at the half-century mark remains one of the most significant glories of the American musical theater. It’s a wise choice as the Paper Mill’s entry in the Richard Rodgers centennial celebration. The timeless tuner boasts both sweep and majesty, and the handsome mounting on the Millburn stage serves as a testimony to the strength and values of this quality regional theater, which is undergoing some financial difficulties and recently ousted its artistic director, Robert Johanson.
Carolee Carmello — late of “Kiss Me, Kate” — is one of the loveliest in a long line of widowed tutors. (Gertrude Lawrence originated the role in 195l, and Gotham followers have included Celeste Holm, Barbara Cook, Rise Stevens, Constance Towers, Angela Lansbury and, most recently, Donna Murphy.) Carmello’s Anna Leonowens has charm and strength. There is an embracing tenderness in her performance, plus comforting maternal wisdom and a spirited strength. She also sings beautifully, and there’s a sweet intimacy in her delivery.
Kevin Gray’s King of Siam has the right balance of bullying royal arrogance and authority, plus a keen touch of condescending warmth and needling humor. Particularly significant is his expansive and witty reading of “A Puzzlement,” the king’s only solo turn.
Sandia Ang as Lady Thiang is impressively regal and maternally wise, making “Something Wonderful” just that. The star-crossed lovers are played by Paolo Montalban and Margaret Ann Gates. In their brief, rushed moments of guarded passion, they deliver two of the most sensuous ballads in the bountiful Rodgers-Hammerstein canon, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.”
Hoon Lee as the Kralahome is a properly stern and forbidding major domo. A dozen or more tots scurry through the palace, and they are an enchanting asset, with the tiniest royal son always drawing a fond aud response.
The fan dancers are sweetly seductive, a credit to the choreography of Susan Kikuchi, who offers just enough memories of Jerome Robbins’ exotic movement to enchant. In “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the ballet parody of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one finds the inspired Robbins touch relatively intact and timelessly engaging.
The crisp staging by Mark Hoebee harnesses the physical beauty of the production with the flow of the narrative. He has been governed by the score and lets the music flow generously into the hearts of the listener.
Michael Anania’s sumptuous design, especially the glittering gold and crimsons of the throne room, draw considerable oohs and aahs from the house. The costumes, from hoop skirts to the rich Asian fabrics of palace wives and servants, add to the splendor.
Visually, this is a stunning production, and from the start the lovely and infectious Rodgers melodies seduce the listener with an enveloping lilt. Equally important are Oscar Hammerstein’s timeless book and lyrics, which boast grace, wit and poetic grandeur.
The Paper Mill is under fire of late, as the board of trustees has elected to oust Robert Johanson after his 17-year run as artistic director. Johanson is expected to continue on a freelance basis and will helm the season closer, “My Fair Lady,” skedded to open June 5 for six weeks. The board cited escalating budget costs and a severe drop in subscriptions for its unpopular decision. Executive producer Angelo Del Rossi has long been an ardent supporter of Johanson, who helmed several successful productions including a 1993 staging of “The Wizard of Oz,” which transferred to Madison Square Garden, and an acclaimed all-star revival of “Follies” in 1998.