21 July 2014

‘The King and I’ in Paris

Curtain call: In foreground, Susan Graham, James Holmes, and Lambert Wilson.

For several years now, Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet has made a specialty of presenting classics of Broadway musical theater. It’s a daring venture, since the French have virtually no direct experience of a thoroughly American style of performance, apart from what they’ve seen in the movies: by now several shows have seen their French premieres at the Châtelet, years after they bowed in New York, and the producers hope to return the favor, with their own adaptation of An American in Paris, opening in November with hopes of a transfer. I’ve seen only one other Broadway show at the theater, Bernstein’s Candide, which — being an operetta based on Voltaire’s novella — at least fell a little closer to the French sensibility. But I missed out on such gems as West Side Story (a monster hit), On the Town, and La Mélodie du Bonheur (a.k.a. The Sound of Music).

The Châtelet’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I sparked irresistible interest, however, and warranted a trip to Paris: they cast Susan Graham as Anna Leonowens. Susan performed musical comedy in high school and college, but since then she’s specialized in opera, limiting her Broadway rep to Gershwin concerts and the occasional encore number. One knew ahead of time that she’d excel in “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Shall We Dance?” But how would she fare in the less lyrical “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” — to say nothing of all that dialogue and the dancing? Even Susan wasn’t sure, when we spoke during an interview for GBOpera.it, last winter.

“Getting to Know You.”

And what, in the very theater where I first saw Susan in Les Troyens, would the French make of something that, despite its Siamese setting and its Welsh heroine, is fundamentally American — with the potential to be as corny as Kansas in August? Would they tinker with it (as they did with Candide)? Would they embrace it?

Under James Holmes’ vital baton and in Lee Blakeley’s tasteful, straightforward production, Le Roi et Moi emerged in all its charm and its occasional bursts of glory earned. If the show’s finale, the death of the King, tends to sentimentality, so be it: all around me, I could hear people — French people — sniffling and crying.* At every level of the production, one sensed a basic respect for the piece itself, and that’s as it should be.

Illustration by WVM.

Blakeley proved more faithful to Rodgers & Hammerstein than he did to Offenbach in his production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein at Santa Fe last season, and if he felt the need to update, bowdlerize, or apologize for this play’s East–West and male–female conflicts from their oh-so postwar-American roots, you saw no trace of it. Every word and gesture was rooted in character and plot, and in dialogue scenes he elicited fine performances from a cast that included several non-native English speakers and more than one opera singer.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s sets evoked the grandeur that we (and the French) remember from Hollywood’s King and I, yet with simple, almost abstract means; Sue Blane’s costumes included sumptuous gowns for Susan, sleek silks for the Siamese, and oddly sci-fi armor for the King’s female bodyguards. Peggy Hickey (a Tony nominee, also of Santa Fe’s Grande-Duchesse) provided elegantly understated choreography, then pulled out the stops for a recreation of Jerome Robbins’ “Small House of Uncle Thomas” — and, of course, a delightful “Shall We Dance?”

Lambert Wilson played the King. Not merely a thoroughly bilingual singing actor, he’s a true rarity, a Frenchman who loves Broadway with a fan’s passion and a scholar’s seriousness. (He’s even recorded an album of show tunes.) A veteran of the Châtelet’s Candide and A Little Night Music, he’s prevailed in more challenging songs than anything Rodgers throws at the King: more remarkably, he got through the entire play without ever once making me think about Yul Brynner, making the role very much his own.

Praise to Buddha: Susan and Lambert.

As Tuptim, Je Ni Kim offered charming presence and a lovely soprano voice, opposite the vividly sung Lun Tha of Damian Thantrey (of whose performance not much else could be discerned, because Rick Fisher’s otherwise gorgeous lighting design took “We Kiss in a Shadow” a little too literally). The esteemed Scottish mezzo Lisa Milne, whose work I’ve admired on recordings, nimbly traced the development of Lady Thiang from meekest subordinate to subtlest power behind the throne, culminating in a stirring “Something Wonderful.”

And then there was Susan. She knows exactly what to do with this material, and “Shall I Tell You” turned out to be a high point of the entire show, as she crawled around the floor — in pantalettes — while raging through her chest voice, something she’s seldom called on to use in opera. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You” came out as “bright and breezy” as they’re intended to be, but when “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Shall We Dance?” presented her with opportunities to soar, she seized but didn’t overdo them. The first Anna, after all, was Gertrude Lawrence, not an opera singer.

Perhaps because I worked with an opera singer on another Broadway show, Susan’s skill in dialogue scenes impressed me very favorably: not only landing every laugh line squarely, she used her voice as adeptly as she does in song, bringing out nuance through color, letting us hear all those feelings that the teddibly proper Anna cannot express outright. After all, The King and I endures as something more than a collection of hit songs because it is at heart a love story — in which the principals never speak of or act on their love.

Anna and the King dance their love, however, and Susan moved gracefully (all those Merry Widows add up!) as her hoopskirts swirled and swept about her. This was no slumming opera singer, but an American bringing her native culture to another country, with expertise and affection. The French have showered Susan with honors and awards for her dedication to their culture: the Americans might consider giving her a medal of some sort, too.

I’ve never before taken a picture in a theater, but this was historic. The glowing orb near the center is Susan, in a skirt wider
than she is tall.

*NOTE: I attended the performance on June 17. I’d forgotten — probably repressed the memory — that there’s a reprise of “I Whistle a Happy Tune” during the King’s death scene. Yikes, how mawkish. And yet somehow it worked. It all did. They were smart fellows, Rodgers & Hammerstein.

No comments: