Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa FeRegional Reviews
A Delightful The King and I
Also see Rob's review of Souvenir
The King and I balances three themes: a clash of civilizations; the 19th century European domination of Asia; and a conflicted and impossible love story. Anna Leonowens, a widow, has been hired by the King of Siam (now Thailand) to educate his 67 children (he has plural wives) and help him don some Western Civilization camouflage so England won't take his kingdom as a protectorate. Quite a job for Anna, since the King doesn't really want to change.
The dramatic center of the story is the relationship between Anna and the King. Amid the cultural and personality conflicts between the two, affection begins to grow. She is amused by his charm and charisma, and he is enchanted by her intelligence and spunk. Yet, given his plural marriages and the near-brutal dominance of his palace dwellers, the affection has no opportunity to flourish.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's The King and I followed their fabulously successful South Pacific. The pressure for another hit was great. For the story, they chose to work from "Anna and the King of Siam," a popular 1944 novel based on the memoirs of the very real Anna Leonowens about her years as a governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1951 and went on to become the fourth longest-running play of its day. The King and I does not have standout songs like South Pacific, yet the music is solid throughout, and the musical has the advantage of an exotic spectacle, particularly with the song-and-dance episodes featured in the second act. ALT makes great use of this spectacle.
Director Nancy Sellin has created a production that is both solid and magical. She receives considerably support from strong singing performances under the guidance of music director Cheryl Sharps, and she gets wonderful dancing under the direction of choreographer Peter Bennett.
When it was originally staged, The King and I was expected to be pretty much a one-woman show with Anna as the musical's focus, and the King a supporting part. But Yul Brynner emphasized the role of the King and brought the character to near-equal status with Anna. Brynner ended up making a career of playing the King, acting and singing in more than 4,600 performances around the world.
The play-within-a-play at the beginning of act two is one of the highlights of The King and I. Tuptim is enchanted reading a synopsis of the American novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The palace family puts on a ballet of the story as Tuptim narrates in broken English. They call the performance "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." It's both hilarious and quite beautiful. The palace family (more or less slaves themselves) tell the anti-slavery story through dance. They are absolutely charming. This one of the many moments in the musical where Bennett truly shines, directing this ensemble dance.
The singing is uniformly good, in some cases surprisingly good. Sharee Gariety as Anna is delightful both in singing and acting. Michaela Bateman as Tuptim displays a stunning voice. Dean Eldon Squibb as the King is strong throughout, blending well the character's humor and stubbornness. Another delightful performance is Alexander Baca as Anna's son Louis. This is Baca's first professional stage performance, and he lights up the stage every time he speaks.
The lighting is also impressive, thanks to lighting designer Ryan Jason Cook. The scenic design by Vic Browder is terrific, as always with Browder. It must have fun creating the giant elephants that bracket the stage. Browder's sets are enhanced by the lighting effects that expand the scenic designs. Nice job throughout.
The King and I will run at Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, through March 22, 2015. The show starts at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2:00 pm on Sundays. On Thursday, March 12, there will be a 7:30 pm performance. Tickets are $24 for adults, $22 for seniors (65 and above), $18 for students (13 to college), and $12 for children (12 and under). You can buy tickets online at albuquerquelittletheatre.org or by phone at 242-4750, ext. 2.