By Pat Robbenolt
The King and I at the Cumberland County Playhouse is a superb event. Entering the Mainstage auditorium, we are transported to Siam in mid-1800. Set designer Sean McClelland has brought his amazing talent from his south Florida base to transform our stage. It is both massive and beautifully intricate. McClelland has designed eleven different aspects of the King’s palace, which we see in the course of seventeen scene changes. Small wonder that his outstanding designs have received numerous awards.
Amy London, the director of this magnificent production, has relocated to Tennessee and joined the staff of Cumberland County Playhouse. We celebrate her decision and her skillful direction of The King and I. Choreographer Barbara Flaten, lighting designer Ginny Adams and costume designer Kathryn Wagner traveled to Cumberland County to share in the creation of this masterpiece. Their presence bespeaks their appreciation of London as a director. The production is elevated by their skills.
Herman Sebek is the King of Siam. This is the fifth time he has played the role.
He is clearly both the master of the role and of his subjects. His autobiographical note indicates he “coaches singing and performance supporting the expression and dreams of artists of all levels and ages.” He obviously enjoyed interacting with the children of the cast while respecting the other professional and volunteer members on stage. Yet, his regal behavior clearly states that when one is king, one knows everything (or hopes he does). His wonderful rendition of “A Puzzlement,” gives us insight into this complex man.
Nicole Begue Hackmann sailed onto the stage as Anna. With her young son Louis, she has come to Siam to teach the royal children. She has been promised a home of their own in which to reside. Therein arises the first of several differences between the King and Anna. She is not one of his subjects nor one of his many wives. Begue-Hackmann brings grace, beauty and a magnificent voice to the role of Anna. Whether singing the lilting “I Whistle A Happy Tune," the hilarious “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” or “Hello Yong Lovers,” her voice has feeling, power and dynamism. It seems to this reviewer that there has been significant enlargement of Begue-Hackmann’s talents both in her vocal and acting ability. The children of the King love Anna. She cares for each and every one as an individual. The wives find a new vision of womanhood as they watch Anna. The King is puzzled and exasperated by her. She argues with him. She clearly respects him and comes to care deeply for him. Begue-Hackmann reflects all these emotions.
We welcome to the CCPH stage Eli Choate and Daniel Frost, alternating in the role of Anna’s son Louis. As Louis, they managed to be engaged in scenes in which they have no speaking role, yet were able to rise to the occasion of fighting or befriending Prince Chulakorn. Jayden Gable and Zachary Villaruz portray Prince Chulakorn, heir apparent to the throne of Siam. These talented young men, Choate, Frost and Gable, have previously been a part of Cookeville Children’s Theater. Gable and Choate were a part of the Cookeville High School production of The King and I. Both Zachary Villaruz and Jayden Gable present the Prince as still a boy, while pondering his future role. At times this future is threatening for him. Will he truly be King and know everything?
Lauren Marshall plays Lady Thiang, current favored wife of the King and mother of Prince Chulakorn. She brings an essential depth of understanding of the King. Loving him, she knows he is flawed. He will not express his needs. He cannot admit he is wrong.
Yet, he is her King and she can sing of “Something Wonderful.” Her elegant voice expresses her depth of devotion and hope.
The royal children in Anna’s charge are Jesse Allen, Eli and Ella Choate, Will Clark, Italiana C. Davis, Olivia and Taylor Dearman, Kaleigh Doris, Ella Frost, Ava Graham, Katie Kaplan, Kaydi McCausland, Caitlin McMahan, Chavin Medina, Emily Mills, Tavanah Roysden, McKenna Shada, Anais, Sasha and Zachary Villaruz.
The royal wives, their mothers, who are learning along with the children include:
Viki Avalose, Anna Baker, Aven Chadwell, DeAnna Etchison, Sarah Gooding, Madyson Green, Rachel Marie Hatchett, Sarah Herrick, Madison Hicks, Madison Lee, Tana McDonald, Caitlin Schaub, Brooklyn Smith, Delanie Sullivan, Raychal Tinch, Regina Villaruz and Weslie Webster.
Lindy Pendzick and Adam Ignacio bring us Tuptim and Lun Tha. These two are already in love when he has been forced to bring her as a “gift” to the King. Their secretive meetings, their attempts to plan a future together while “We Kiss in A Shadow” are intensely moving. Pendzick brings her soaring soprano voice, her mixture of adult and child to the role. We see utter terror on her face as she is threatened with beating. She is lovely as she and Regina Villaruz invite the teacher to join in their dance.
It is the idea of Tuptim that a drama will be presented in honor of the presence of Sir Edward Ramsey (Greg Pendzick) from England. “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is based on Tuptim’s knowledge of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the work of a similar name. Not only will this be fine entertainment for the visitor, it will provide a time for Tuptim to escape with her beloved: Lun Tha. Adam Ignacio gifts us with his marvelously strong, yet tender voice. He and Lindy Pendzick are touching as they sing: “I Have Dreamed.” I look forward to the possibility that Ignacio might return to the Playhouse after completing his Master's degree in Vocal Performance at Central Michigan University.
The nearly sixty members of the cast have been superbly directed. The choreography is creative. The ensemble of Henry Brooks, Quinn Cason, Cory Clark, Bob Cleeland, Bonnie Etchison, Trey Norrod, Austin Price, Terri Ritter, Cody Rutledge, Chaz Sanders and Moriah McRae enhance the production with their talents.
Through it all, Ron Murphy and his pit orchestra of David Garrison, Joe Brindisi, Greg Danner, Tony Greco, Kathy Bower, Wayne Robbins, Robert Thatch and Chet Hayes bring forth the vitality and beauty of the musical score. What a gift they are.
This is indeed an extravaganza you will want to see. No matter how many times you have seen Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, this production has a freshness and beauty that is a joy. Thank you Jim Crabtree for producing it. The production runs through August 30. Call for tickets for you and your guests.