Regional Reviews: Seattle
The King and I
Heavily fictionalized from a true story, The King and I was originally written for Gertrude Lawrence as the Welsh school teacher Anna Leonowens, who brought the idea to Rodgers and Hammerstein after seeing the non-musical film version Anna and the King of Siam. Rex Harrison, who had starred as the mercurial King in the film, was sought for the musical but passed on it. The show's original co-star was a comparatively unknown Yul Brynner, who became so associated with the show (both through recreating the film which won him an Oscar and years of touring and a Broadway revival) that it became known as a star vehicle for the actor playing the King. However, it is Mrs. Anna who dominates the text and the score and at the Village, Beth DeVries is everything one could hope for: warm, funny and passionate, and blessed with the ideal singing voice for the role. DeVries has a perfect handle on Anna's lighter songs, "I Whistle A Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You", a wistful warmth on "Hello, Young Lovers," and she tears into Anna's big soliloquy "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" with passion and wry humor. This is not to slight the excellent performance of Michael K. Lee as the King, merely to point out he has less material to work with musically. But the actor has the nuances and quirks of the conflicted monarch down pat and is a worthy scene partner to DeVries. He gives a fervent, passionate reading of "A Puzzlement" and teams fetchingly with DeVries on "Shall We Dance?," the pair assuring that the song remains one of the most thrilling in all musicals.
Stellar support is offered by Kim Varhola, whose Lady Thiang may be the finest I have ever seen, as not only does she make sure her song "Something Wonderful" lives up to its title, but she even takes on the score's weakest number, "Western People Funny," and through her wry and sassy interpretation justifies it remaining in the show (the number is almost always cut). Since Hammerstein gave the characters of thwarted lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha precious little dialogue, it remains for the actors cast in these roles to do wonders with their lovely songs. As Tuptim, Jennifer Paz sparkles on her solo "My Lord and Master", and is happily paired by Christian Rey Marbella's Lun Tha on" We Kiss in A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." In the song-less role of the King's Prime Minister The Kralahome, Ben Gonio brings more shading and dimension to the role than is often the case. As Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, Bryan Djunaedi is charming, and Mike Klinge as Anna's son Louis has the fundamentals of his character down, but races through his lines at such a clip that he is hard to understand. Finally, though the intimacy of the Village stage limits the number of Royal wives and children present to a minimum, those who do appear do a fine job.
The Tomkins/Van Meter choreography is satisfying throughout, and the capper in dance terms remains the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, in which the slave Tuptim uses Harriet Beecher Stowe's then current book as a vehicle to protest against the slavery in the court of Siam. Bruce Monroe's musical direction is rich and brisk, and it is a glory to hear so many instruments in the pit of a Village show.
The visual splendors of the production include Robert A. Dahlstrom's transcendently lovely scenic designs, Aaron Copp's haunting lighting design and Melanie Burgess' opulent costumes, topped off by Anna's gown for "Shall We Dance?" As a 57-year-old musical, The King and I may seem quaint and dated, but when as much care has gone into a production as this, such carping seems utterly groundless.
The King and I runs through January 6, 2008 AT 303 Front Street in Issaquah, then moves to Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave in Everett from January 11-27, 2008. For more information, visit www.villagetheatre.org.
- David Edward Hughes