For the first time since 1982, Williamsport's Community Theatre League (CTL) will stage Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1951 musical "The King and I."
Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. June 20, 21, 26, 26 and 28; and a 2 p.m. matinee June 29, at the Community Theatre, 100 W. Third St.
The production will in fact mark several firsts: the first time Seth Sponhouse will tackle a play by the 20th century heavyweights as a director, the first time actor Beau Schemery (who will play the King) will star in a musical, and the first time each of the leading actresses will have have worked with the CTL.
Here "first" should not imply inexperience, however. Prior to "The King and I," Sponhouse directed "Legally Blonde: The Musical" as well as Elton John and Tim Rice's "AIDA" as a student director at Millersville University.
"I have always been a fan of 'classic' big Broadway shows and you do not get (more) quintessentially old-school Broadway than this," Sponhouse said in an email interview. Sponhouse explained that he saw an advertisement for the directing opportunity last summer and reached out to the CTL right away.
The musical is based on the 1944 novel "Anna and the King of Siam," written by Margaret Landon, which was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. King Mongkut sought to modernize his country at a time when European nations sought dominance, and American traders strived for greater influence, in Southeast Asia. Part of King Mongkut's efforts included hiring Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, to familiarize his heirs and harem in Western ways.
Despite the fact that "The King and I" would go on to become the then fourth-longest running Broadway musical in history, Rodgers and Hammerstein initially disliked the novel as basis for a musical. Upon seeing the 1946 film adaptation, the duo reluctantly agreed to write the musical, and today "The King and I" remains high on any list of the most commonly produced and requested musicals in English-speaking countries around the world.
"It's truly a gem in the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection," Sponhouse said of the musical, adding "it has something for the whole family - with serious scenes of clashing backgrounds and cultures, intertwined brilliantly with tons of humor and a little bit of romance."
Sponhouse went on to say that he knew as he entered the project that he had no intention to recreate the film version of "The King and I": "Why ... throw away the opportunity to create something new and exciting?"
Working alongside Sponhouse are music director Marisa Hickey, choreographer Tess Gist, costume designer Pat Musselman, stage manager Jordan Mondell, production manager Andree Phillips, set designer Tim Bower and CTL administrative manager and artistic director of musicals, Jacquie Engel.
Add to the large crew the impressive number of children, wives, secondary and leading characters that people the musical, and it becomes easy to see why organization poses one of the larger challenges of producing the musical.
"It's a large cast," Engel said, with "Lots of children, wives and dancers, but Seth (Sponhouse) does a good job of not over-crowding the stage." The auditions, which were held in April, saw Schemery cast as the King, Kari Anne Miller in the role of Anna, Natasha Simeonoff as Tuptim, Desiree Mausteller as Lady Thiang and Joseph Taylor as Lun Tha.
"Managing people is always a challenge," Sponhouse said, going on to say that can mean "making a rehearsal schedule in which we see everyone or creating a game plan during rehearsals so that everyone is being used." Sponhouse admitted that the theater can occasionally feel "a little chaotic," but that the cast has been "incredibly sweet" and "a pleasure to work with."
Music director Marisa Hickey and choreographer Tess Gist have some of the more enigmatic and complex of Rodgers' musical offerings to work with, among them the easily recognizable "Getting to Know You."
Rodgers employed unconventional intervals and chord forms to create a score that Engel described as "a mixture of exotic Eastern sounds and traditional music theater." In short, she deemed it simply "wonderful."