Penman No. 12: A Spectacle of Orientalia

AK

Penman for Monday, Sept. 17, 2012 

I BELONG to a generation that grew up on Broadway musicals—before Broadway got all dark and grungy, and even if we’d never been to Broadway at that point. Thanks to the movies and to vinyl, it was perfectly possible to be transported from Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to Salzburg and Manhattan, or from Barrio Malinao in Pasig to the South Pacific and Siam. It’s hardly surprising that today, as a grown man approaching 60, I can still sing songs from South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Camelot with the verve, albeit without the voice, that I had at 17.

I’ve since had the opportunity to catch some musicals on Broadway and the West End, and while I’ve marveled at the visual and vocal pyrotechnics of such modern classics as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, I miss the brave optimism of the old musicals—where, even in death, there was always a glimmer of hope in the end (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” in Carousel, “Somewhere” in West Side Story). I didn’t know then that this defiant cheerfulness was part of a commercial formula; I didn’t care. All I knew was that it felt good to whistle a happy tune, and that, approaching my crush du jour’s abode, I wanted to burst into a heartfelt rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” outside her window.

And so when I recently received an invitation from a long-time Penman reader and correspondent—the accomplished musical theater director Freddie Santos—to a preview performance of The King and I, there was no way that I was going to resist or refuse. The show took place at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World a couple of Sundays ago, and my wife and I (or, as I rechristened the two of us, “The Beng and I”) arrived three hours early to see what the Resorts World buzz was all about, being staunch denizens of the North.

“I feel like I’m in Macau” was Beng’s first impression, and soon it was my jaw’s turn to drop when we entered the plush and capacious Newport Theater. It seemed like a daunting cavity to fill, but nothing fills space like music, and as soon as the overture began and the curtains rose, we were all elsewhere.

I had seen the Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr film version of the musical many times, and so I wondered how Freddie Santos was going to convey all that convincingly in a practically all-Filipino production, but I needn’t have worried. Freddie earns this shameless plug: this is a wondrously good show, so good that The Beng and I will gladly return as paying patrons with friends to see it all again.

In a sense, The King and I is almost pre-programmed to succeed—which only raises the bar for any director assigned to it. Most musicals can be lucky to have more than one or two showstoppers that people will be singing afterwards (say, “I Know Him So Well” from Chess and “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line)—often without any idea of where the song came from. The King and I has at least seven of them: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”; “Getting to Know You”; “Hello, Young Lovers”; “We Kiss in a Shadow”; “Something Wonderful”; “I Have Dreamed”; and “Shall We Dance”. (The most difficult piece of all of these to essay—“Something Wonderful”—brought Beng to tears, although, without meaning to diminish Gina Respall’s achievement, I should add that Beng cries every time she sees The King and I, particularly when Yul Brynner dies in the title role.) Incidentally, Gina—as the sympathetic Lady Thiang—is a Filipino performer now based in London, where she has also played the role.

As was to be expected, the veteran Leo Valdez played King Mongkut with comic aplomb and authority. Monique Wilson (on leave from the London Performance School where she is a department head) inhabited her character thoroughly.

No Broadway musical can be complete without a pair of star-crossed lovers—think of Joe Cable and Liat in South Pacific, and of Tony and Maria in West Side Story—and the Tuptim-Lun Tha subplot in The King and I lends the narrative a romantic urgency that counterpoints the Anna-King relationship, which never goes beyond mild flirtation. Tanya Manalang as Tuptim and Lawrence Martinez as Lun Tha carried their duets with powerful poignancy.

The sets and costumes—the latter sourced directly from Thailand—were sumptuous. The allegorical “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” playlet was a masterful demonstration of ingenious stagecraft.

Of course it isn’t just Orientalia on display; after all, there’s no more quintessential East-meets-West piece of theater than The King and I. The 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical—based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 bestseller Anna and the King of Siam—purports to chronicle the contact between the British Anna Leonowens and Mongkut (great-grandfather of the present King Bhumibol) and thereby the incipient modernization of Thailand, but the academic in me has to add, at the risk of being a spoilsport, that the truth was far more prosaic than the play, which one critic called “a confection built on a novel built on a fabrication.” Some online sleuthing will quickly reveal that there was a real Anna (1831-1915) and she did go to the Siamese court to teach Mongkut’s wives and children for almost six years, and Mongkut did find her “a difficult woman,” but no, they didn’t waltz around the room “on a bright cloud of music.” Indeed, the movie musical was banned in Thailand when it first came out.

That said, people go to musical theater not for history and scholarship but for spectacle and romance. This unabashed and otherwise silly translation of human emotion and experience into song and dance is after all, from the very outset, a conscious departure from fact and reality, striving for truths of the heart rather than of the mind. Trust the historians and the journalists to lay out the facts, which can and should be appreciated in their own good time; but these momentary fictions and our need for them are also, inalienably, part of what make us human.

In other words, The Beng and I had an enormously good time, and we spent the long ride home singing along to the soundtrack I played off my iTunes in the car. The next morning, I took my usual walk around the UP Oval, with the Peabo Bryson-Leah Salonga version of “I Have Dreamed” streaming through my ears.

The show opened to the public just last Saturday and will run until December, with ticket prices ranging from P1,000 to P2,400—certainly not loose change for cash-strapped Pinoys, but think again of how much you’d be saving by not having to fly to London or New York for the chance of enjoying a world-class musical experience.

(Photo by Geoffrey Yusooncho)

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