The King and I Preview

By Montague Gammon III

A chorus of 250 local children, featured Hampton Roads performers and a quartet of professional opera and Broadway stars give the Lyric Opera of Virginia's The King and I multiple ways to capture Virginia audiences.

So does the script, which LOV Artistic Director Peter Mark notes is multi-leveled. He calls the 1951 musical romance both “an exotic version of the battle of the sexes,” and a look at “[W]here America was, just out of the Second World War ... just beginning to experience the excitement of how big the world is.”

The titular King is the ruler of 1860s Siam, an absolute monarch with harem and slaves. The “I” is the Western widow Anna Leonowens, hired as governess to his 67 children (hence those chorister kids).

King and I is also a multi-faceted love story. Anna’s love for her late husband underlies “Hello Young Lovers.” The King’s prime wife Lady Thiang (Aundi Marie Moore, a Hampton Roads soprano with a thriving international career) loves the King, flawed as he is (“Something Wonderful”).

The slave girl Tuptim, a gift to the King from his Burmese counterpart, loves a young man Lun Tha (“We Kiss in the Shadows” and “I Have Dreamed”). Most famously, Anna and the King hint at an affection that can never be acknowledged, in their subtext-laden “Shall We Dance” duet.

Both the fictional Leonowens and the real woman on which she was based count as extraordinarily independent; Mark calls Anna's musical "rant" about the King, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You," "one of the earliest tracts and diatribes" for feminism.

Ann's young son Louis is played by Chesapeake 5th grader and Hurrah Players veteran Ben Branigan, whom Mark terms "a phenomenal actor ... quite incredible."

Mark calls Ms. Moore's voice "glamorous, sensational."

The King, Kevin Gray, played that same role on Broadway – only the third performer to do so. His resume spans opera, musical theatre, concertizing, TV acting, and voice-over work. "Rich, blooming, glorious" are the adjectives Mark uses for his sound, adding that Gray has extraordinary "stage charisma."

Lisa Vroman, cast as Anna, gets praise from Mark as "one of the most incredible crossover artists ... equally at home [in opera and musical theatre]... an exquisite communicator."

Diane Phelan, reprising the role of Tuptim that she did in Kansas City, Sacramento and on tour, actually has performances in Southeast Asia - Cambodia - in her extensive list of singing, acting and producing credits.

Local opera audiences have heard Nate Hackman (Lun Tha) already. Two years ago he did Fiorello in Barber of Seville at the Harrison Opera House, then stepped into that opera's part of Figaro on short notice. He's toured as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, and done a host of musical theater and opera roles across the continent.

There's at least one more, very simple level of appeal for The King and I, which, Mark notes, is one of the most successful of musicals. He calls it "wholesome, uplifting," for its picture of American ideals, and says it is "The perfect family entertainment."

The King and I by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Lyric Opera of Virginia
Jan. 6 & 8, Sandler Center, Virginia Beach
Jan 27 & 29, Ferguson Center, Newport News