The King and I

The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, receives an appropriately opulent presentation in a new touring version, debuting this week at the Benedum Center for Pittsburgh CLO. Stars Sandy Duncan (Peter Pan, My One and Only, Chicago) and Martin Vidnovic (The King & I, King David, Grand Night for Singing, Baby) solidly portray Anna and The King of Siam, and are backed by a terrific cast of supporting and ensemble players. Production values are far above many, if not most, touring productions and offer a Broadway-level look to enrich the experience.

The King and I premiered on Broadway in 1951 and won five Tony Awards. The show, and its subsequent film version, made an icon of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. The original production featured the last appearance of the legendary Gertrude Lawrence, who was one of the first to approach Rodgers and Hammerstein about the project and played Anna until three weeks before her death in 1952. The show includes such time-honored classic songs as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," "Something Wonderful," and "Shall We Dance?". Adapted from the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which itself was based on the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens, the musical presents the story of an Englishwoman's life-changing experiences as teacher of the royal children in the palace of the King of Siam (now known as Thailand) in the 1860s. Unusual in the musical theatre canon by having no romance between the lead characters, the story touches on the issues of the conflicting cultures of east and west, women's rights, and despotism vs. democracy.

Sandy Duncan's history with The King and I began early, when she made her theatrical debut in a summer production in Dallas at the age of 12. Going on to develop a respected stage career, with appearances in Agnes de Mille's production of Carousel, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Finian's Rainbow, Life with Father, and Peter Pan, Duncan has received three Tony nominations and a Theatre World award, and has built a well known career on television as well. Duncan is expectedly spunky and vivacious in this role, and her singing voice (though perhaps not as "big" as lead actresses frequently are) is excellent. She is quite engaging and the opening night crowd showered her with a huge ovation to show their affection.

Martin Vidnovic has a history with this story as well, beginning with his appearance as Lun Tha in the 1977 revival of The King and I (with Yul Brynner) and on to his voice work as the King in the animated version (not to mention the regally-related appearance as King Saul in Disney's King David). Though it is disappointing that an Asian actor was not cast in this role (a fact brought home each time the many Asian children of the King are paraded on stage), Vidnovic is terrific in the role. He is an appropriately staunch and commanding King, and he also presents the King's soft side very nicely, as he gives a solid acting performance. It is a shame the role doesn't offer more opportunity for Vidnovic to sing as his gifts are well known, and the bits of singing he is allowed here make one wish for much more. His "A Puzzlement" is excellent.

Supporting players in this production deliver respectable performances, with Luz Lor in great voice as Tuptim, as is Catherine Mieun Choi as Lady Thiang. Martin Sola, as Lun Tha, sings beautifully and powerfully with Lor in their showcase duet of "I Have Dreamed." The ensemble performers and the corps of children are excellent, particularly in the standout presentation of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," with superb choreography (Jerome Robbins' original, recreated by Susan Kikuchi) and lush costumes (Roger Kirk). Teamed with an excellent orchestra (which is at the top of its form here) and effective staging, these components create the musical highlight in this production, simply delightful.

It is wonderful to see the stage of the huge Benedum wholly adorned with the sumptuous set designed by Kenneth Foy (it is daunting to think of this set travelling, but this is indeed a tour). The richness of the colors and of the materials used in the palace scenes in particular - from the "gold leaf" decoration around the proscenium arch to the detailed tapestry hangings, and everything (a lot of everything) in between - fill the stage and offer a truly palatial vision. Roger Kirk's costumes (which may be from the recent Broadway revival) are equally gorgeous, resplendent in color and fabric. Lighting by John McLain adds a lot to the total picture, though many seemingly unintentional shadows were visible on opening night.

It is reported that some (approved) script changes have been made, and it is entertaining to see the rinserted "Western People Funny."

This production of The King and I continues at the Benedum Center only through June 20, before it is whisked off to the next city in this tour. For schedule and ticket information, call 412.456.6666 or visit

Atlanta's Theater of the Stars and The Independent Presenters Network present The King and I. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II. Based on Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. Directed by Baayork Lee. Jerome Robbins' Choreography Recreated by Susan Kikuchi. Scenic Design by Kenneth Foy. Costume Design by Roger Kirk. Lighting Design by John McLain. Sound Design by Abe Jacob and Mark Cowburn. Musical Supervisor/Conductor Kevin Farrell. Musical Supervisor/Conductor Kevin Farrell.

Cast (in order of appearance): Hal Davis (Captain Orton), Patrick Minor (Louis Leonowens), Sandy Duncan (Anna Leonowens), Scott Kitajima (The Interpreter), Ronald M. Banks (The Kralahome), Martin Vidnovic (The King of Siam), Natalie Turner (Court Dancer), Martin Sola (Lun Tha), Luz Lor (Tuptim), Catherine MiEun Choi (Lady Thiang), Lou Castro (Prince Chulalongkorn), Sally Wong (Fan Dancer), Daphne Chen (Princess Yaowlak), Hal Davis (Sir Edward Ramsay).

Ensemble: Enrique Acevedo, Nita Baxani, Ariel Bonilla, Sae La Chin, Cesar Cipriano, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Simeon Den, Yuka Fukuda, Kumi Kimura, Scott Kitajima, Jane Labanz, Leon Le, Yun Liang, Sumie Maeda, Allan Mangaser, LaToya D. Martin, Eng Kian Ooi, Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Natalie Turner, Sally Wong, Jessica Wu.

The Royal Children: Jellyn Anne Echon, Alexa Ehrlich, Ryan Hutchins, JaiQi Li, Cassie Mak, Jasmine Ruiz, John Ruiz, Josel Ruiz, Jeff Yalun, Ronald Yam.

Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons

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-- Ann Miner

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