I have to admit I was somewhat shocked when I entered the theatre to find a truly old-fashioned Proscenium and Curtain instead of the Drury Lane’s elaborate set designs for this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. However, it sets you up for this very traditional production very well.
(I also must note that Drury Lane has dispensed with all Covid 19 protocols. We were not required to show vaccination status nor were we required to mask, though a number of patrons, myself included, did so. There is a new variant spreading rapidly through the population. Many in Washington D.C. are currently sick including my Congressman and Nancy Pelosi and I have a number of local friends who are also down with Covid. This isn’t really the time to be sitting in a crowded theatre with no mask on as we live in the area with the busiest airport in the country and it’s already here sickening Chicagoland. So please be aware if you are serious about not getting sick or have risk factors, you might want to skip this production.)
As soon as the actors hit the incredibly minimalist stage, you could see that this show was going to rise and fall on the performances and costumes alone, and fortunately, the extremely well-cast ensemble delivered in spades. From the moment Anna (Betsy Morgan ) and Louis (Braden Crothers) begin “I Whistle a Happy Tune” you know you’re in for a splendid time in this musical that remains delightful after all these years with its fish-out-of-water story of the Welsh Schoolteacher at the court of Siam.
Ms. Morgan has a good English accent, looks charming in the part, and brings her own take on Anna, letting the script lead her to the beats and highs and lows of the story. She is not channeling Deborah Kerr from the film, (despite them making her a redhead) but bringing her own take and it’s an excellent one. It’s especially notable in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You.” Her voice is very strong and good and she has quite a wide vibrato which sometimes hits the microphone unpleasantly in her higher register. I hope the sound engineer corrects this.
(I have to say here that just once I’d like to see a woman of South Asian ancestry cast in this role. The real Anna Lenowens was an Indian-born, mixed-race expat who had never been to England. She managed to pass and carve out a decent life for herself and her son (and daughter) in the incredibly racist society of the British colonial system (but only by cutting ties with her birth family entirely), eventually landing in Canada and helping to found the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. (Other fun fact, she’s Boris Karloff’s great-aunt.)
Drury Lane did a good job of casting Asian actors in the Asian roles and they brought actual Asian accents to their parts instead of relying on the pidgin English to carry them. Karmann Bajuyo starts us off on the exactly right foot with his take on the Kralahome and remains a strong presence throughout. The other minor court functionaries and the various children were also excellent.
This production is also gifted with a terrific pair of young lovers in Paulina Yeung as Tuptim and Matthew Uzarraga as Lun Tha. You actually like and care about them as little as they are on stage and as singing across the stage as the blocking has them do in this. You understand how very afraid they are of being found out. Tuptim gets more to do, of course, and Yeung’s angry take is excellent. She also has the same issues with vibrato and the microphone as Morgan, so I’m assuming this is a sound issue seeing two actors are suffering from the exact same problem when they project.
Christine Bunuan departs the most from the usual formula in this play with her extremely warm and caring Lady Thiang, but it works incredibly well. She may be the strongest person I’ve ever seen in this role. She absolutely rules and you can see her loving hand ordering the King’s palace. And she delivers on the best song in the show.
I admit I was somewhat dubious to see Broadway Aladdin, Adam Jacobs, in the role of the King. But he was absolutely terrific. He sang a lot more than many kings, but he has the voice for it for certain. And I really liked how much his sincerity came through on wanting better for his people. He just seems very young for this role, which makes the death scene seem a bit far-fetched than if he was a decade older.
The Drury Lane chorus performers and dancers were very strong as usual and “Small House of Uncle Thomas” absolutely killed. It really has to be one of the best plays within a play that’s ever been on stage as it both informs the story that is being told and is a unique story on its own. And it always works when it’s well-done, as it was here.
The costumes by Izumi Inaba deserve a special shout-out because they carried this whole production as there wasn’t much of a set design at all. The wigs were less awful than usual as well.
I heartily recommend this offering at the Drury Lane. It’s basically actors in lovely costumes performing a beloved show on an almost bare stage, which only highlights the quality of the performances.
The show runs from now until May 22, 2022. Tickets are available at the Drury Lane Box Office.
All photography by Brett Beiner for Drury Lane