KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 11, 1999
“Shall We Dance?” Why not?
If you missed the recent touring production of “The King and I,” now’s your chance for “Getting to Know” it. Just “Whistle a Happy Tune” and head up to Escondido. This is a debut production for the Welk Resort Theatre (although the show’s been around for nearly half a century). That’s why you probably know a lot of these stellar songs by heart…. “Something Wonderful,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “I Have Dreamed,” “We Kiss in a Shadow.”
Maybe you saw the acclaimed 1956 movie, with the indefatigable Yul Brynner (who was the very first to make shaved heads cool). He starred in the original, award-winning 1951 Broadway production and racked up more than 4600 performances of the title role over the course of 34 years.
Then, in 1996, a revival of the show knocked Broadway’s socks off all over again. That production went on tour and stopped at the Civic Theatre last year. And now, animated and live action film versions are on the way.
So, what’s all the fuss about? It’s a great show, with great music, and the potential for spectacular costumes, scenery and choreography.
“The King and I” was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical based on a true story, adapted from Margaret Landon’s celebrated novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was, in turn, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an adventurous 19th century Englishwoman who became governess to the children of Siam’s King Mongkut.
Set in Bangkok in the early 1860s, the play chronicles the many conflicts and clashes between the gentle but strong-willed governess and the autocratic, semi-barbaric ruler. Eventually (inevitably?), they fall in love—sort of. Well, at least they get to dance… Ultimately, she influences him to democratize the country, and (what doesn’t appear in the show), after the King’s death, she actually stayed around as advisor to his successor, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn.
There’s also a tragic secondary plot in the musical, concerning the furtive romance between Tuptim, one of the king’s many wives, and her lover Lun Tha. This allows for the airing of issues of slavery, polygamy – and sending elephants to help President Lincoln fight his war.
Meanwhile, far from Siam (that is to say, Thailand today), grass isn’t growing under the feet of director/choreographer Don Ward, up in North County. He’s had three summer musical productions back to back: “Gypsy” and “Carousel” at Moonlight, and “The King and I” at the Welk Resort Theatre. At the Welk, he’s assembled an attractive cast of 26, headed by Patti Goodwin, a local theater staple who first played Anna at Moonlight Amphitheatre, and scored her first leading role years ago opposite none other than Don Ward in “The Music Man.”
Goodwin is obviously extremely comfortable in the role, and she’s an excellent match for Ronald Banks, a thrilling baritone and a totally convincing, imperious potentate. Overall, it’s the singing in this production that’s consistently outstanding. The musical accompaniment is sluggish, bland and undistinguished, the scenery is flat and underwhelming. But the voices are spectacular. Musically and dramatically, Banks and Goodwin really bring this relationship to life. The secondary characters sing beautifully as well: Linda Igarashi, Antoine Reynaldo Diel, and Karen Lew, and as the young crown prince, Luis Avila puts in a strong performance. Most of these folks have played their roles before, and some, like the supple and elegant Miho Imoto, who dances the role of Eliza in the “Uncle Thomas” ballet, have toured nationally in the show. The kids, as always, are adorable, and the costumes are quite lovely.
But the direction leaves a lot to be desired. Most often, actors come downstage, face forward with their arms at their sides, and just sing. The best movement is during the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” segment, for which the choreography was adapted by Luis Avila from the national tour. With such wonderful voices and experienced actors, why couldn’t the sets and staging match that level of production value? As the King would say, ‘It’s a puzzlement.’
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.