Based on a novel based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens (Menchu Launchengco-Yulo), this musical tells the story of a British woman who arrives in Bangkok with her son in the late 1800’s to play governess to the children of then reigning Thai monarch, King Mongkut (Nonie Buencamino). Set within the glittering confines of the royal palace, this onstage rendition is characterized by the constant friction between Anna and the King mainly brought about by their belief systems influenced by the different cultures from which they have been brought up. A love angle is also suggested all throughout the play, but just lingers in the background and is not pursued. This material has had several incarnations, including several movies, of which that one with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat is well-remembered. The onstage version adds music and choreography that guarantees an enjoyable experience.
Staging a musical with a cast made up of Thais is not that difficult to do in the Philippines. Hey, we are all Southeast Asians. We resemble each other whether we like it or not. And although only three of four of them are supposed to be European, one would not be that hard pressed to find someone who looks Caucasian here. Enter Menchu Lauchengco Yulo. Her features look western alright, and with that British accent down pat, you really would not find anything wrong with her portrayal. Despite the elaborate costumes and awesome portrayal, her turn as Diana Goodman in Next to Normal, however, still remains to be the personal favorite in terms of raw emotion and stage presence.
Nonie Buencamino is no newcomer to musical theater, with credentials also involving western remakes such as that opposite Dawn Zulueta when they starred in A Winter Night Musical. Aside from the obvious observation that he looks the part, his portrayal of a comical King Mongkut definitely caught the audience’s funny bone. The interesting contrast though is how he is seen later after the show, as people are lined up waiting for taxis, getting out of the building in ordinary clothes, went straight to 7-11 to buy something, and eventually left, perhaps taking the public commute. He is such a simple guy, and in contrast to the role that he just played, you could not help but admire how great of an actor he is, or all of them for that matter for lending us the onstage credibility that makes everything we see believable.
The rest of the cast are also worthy of praise. Tuptim (Tanya Manalang) gets most of the lung-busting songs, mostly duets with Lun Tha (Lorenz Martinez). Lady Thiang (Gina Respall) also wows with her sweet soprano and honest performance as the king’s consort who knows her place within the royal court and wholeheartedly accepts the fact that she is not really in the position to do anything about it. She is one sad character who covers up heartbreak with a stern mask of authority among the concubines. The kids are too adorable, particularly those three boys in blue who look alike! There are plenty of them, and they make this show so cute to watch, a perfect distraction from the main story arc concerning Anna and the King, as well as that romantic subplot between Tuptim and Lun Tha.
Coming right after The Sound of Music in Resorts World Manila’s theater line-up since they started, one could not help but compare the similarities, basically on how the two main characters often disagree and end up falling in love. The setting also calls for some immediate change in terms of regimes and status quo which greatly affects the actions of the characters. Both leading ladies originally cast are Filipinas who have made a name in the West End scene. The difference would be on the production values, more or less. This is not to say that The Sound of Music was staged with amateur sets and stuff, but rather because of the setting of The King and I in a palace, which means that the predominant hues of dazzling gold would be quite difficult to ignore. You want world class? This is absolutely world class.
Why the 4/5 then? Given the observations abovementioned, this particular staging of the musical deserves a 5/5 for the technical aspects, production design, and the acting, of course. One clover less is because of the material itself and how absurd it all seems to be, pretty much more than two hours of lèse-majesté onstage. You could understand why anyone from Thailand will flinch at the very idea. While we all know that it is fiction, the characters portrayed, or better yet, their descendants, are very much alive and kicking today. The concept of monarchy itself is rather outdated and those subscribed to that ideal had no choice but to adapt to the modern world, but still, there is a lot of respect going on for any of them to be portrayed in such a cartoonish, bordering-on-caricature kind of way. These historical figures symbolize a plethora of ideas and beliefs that whole nations hold dear to heart, and that is where the controversy lies. But yeah, if your going to be technical about it, this musical is worth the admission ticket. Leave your knowledge of history and society at the ticket counter first, maybe.