At the Olney, Montalban, Morella Tackle Iconic Roles: King of Siam and Scrooge

Right now, on different stages at the Olney Theatre Center, you can see two of the most iconic stage roles ever. They are roles forever embedded in the hearts and minds of theater-goers for decades—and centuries, in one case.

That’s the challenge for Paolo Montalban, who plays the King of Siam in Olney’s spectacular and hugely entertaining production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (through January 5), and Paul Morella, the actor who plays not only Scrooge but all the parts in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” (through Dec. 29).

For Montalban, the precursor, the ghost of “The King and I” past is, of course, the late Yul Brynner, the bald-domed, charismatic actor who made the part his own on stage (to his last, dying performing days) and on film, so much so that for a few years after his death, you didn’t see too many productions of “The King and I.”

For Morella, the problem is a little different: literally thousands of actors and actresses have played the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly businessman who bah-humbugs Christmas and mankind in general, before being visited by a set of ghosts on Christmas eve. It’s not one actor who shadows any production of “A Christmas Carol,” but a horde that includes Alastair Sim, star of the 1951 black-and-white film, but also George C Scott, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and locally, Ed Gero who stars in the yearly production at Ford’s Theater. We also have to mention Mr. Magoo and Susan Lucci, not to mention Charles Dickens himself.

“I saw Yul Brynner when I was a kid doing the part,” said Montalban, a Filipino-American. “It’s not something you forget. But you can’t be him, even if you wanted to try, and I don’t want to do that. You respect the man, the memory, and then you do what you do, and hope you’ve created a character that’s believable and memorable.”

This King of Siam has a head of dark hair, is handsome, just 40-years-old, sometimes funny, and very much carries a full load of charisma of his own. He’s not so much a stage-stomper as an actor who commands the stage, while letting out a certain amount of warmth and humor, especially when sparring with Eileen Ward as Anna.

“I’ve done the part and the show before,” he said. “I’ve been in the ensemble. I’ve played the young lover and the king. So, it’s not entirely unfamiliar to me, but I could go back to it again and again. This venue is especially challenging and rewarding. It’s not a huge theater. So, you can feel and hear the audience.”

Montalban achieved some early success as Prince Charming in the ABC production of “Cinderella” back in the 1990s, opposite the pop singer Brandy. No less a star than Whitney Houston, who was executive producer of the show, picked him. In a People Magazine story of the time, Houston was quoted as saying, “Everyone knew he was the one the moment he entered the room.”

He’s still the one when he first enters the stage in “The King and I.” It’s not that you forget Yul Brynner; it’s that you remember Montalban (who is not related to Ricardo Montalban).

Morella knows that Scrooge is a familiar part—and motif—especially at this time of the year. “I know that many, many actors have played the part,” he says. “But that’s not the thing. If there’s a ghost in the machine, here it’s Dickens himself.”

Dickens, in fact, did tour with “A Christmas Carol,” reading or playing all the parts. “I try to imagine what that must have been like, but that’s the idea behind this. Dickens intended for one person to do the show.”

Morella has been seen at most of the theater venues in and aroundWashington, but he’s used to the spotlight because it’s something of a family tradition—he’s the eldest child of the former Maryland Republican congresswoman Connie Morella.

“A Christmas Carol” is, in some ways, a Paul Morella re-invention and re-habitation of Dickens himself. “This is my fifth year with this, and it keeps getting deeper and richer for me, and the audience, I hope,” he said. “It’s a one-person show in the sense that I play 47 parts—exactly so—including Scrooge, the ghosts, the nephew, Tiny Tim and his father (that was hard), but it’s more than that. It’s story telling, not reading. It’s the way Dickens, I think, did it back in Victorian times. So, you recreate a style of a certain time in history. It wasn’t unlike our own—it’s easy to dismiss Scrooge as a heartless man, but he’s lost his bearings, not his intelligence. ‘My business is business,’ he says. He’s pragmatic.”

“What’s really the best thing in some ways is the audience,” Morella says. “We make it a total experience. I greet people at the door as Dickens in costume. It’s part of the season.

As for the Olney, Morella said: “I’ve done a good share of my work here over the years, and everyone involved in this space, this place, has grown it, built it. It’s a very special place, and more and more people are seeing that now.”

“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” is Paul Morella’s story as well as Dickens. “It’s like a tale told around a Christmas fire,” he said.


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