Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

File under "K" for Kimberly Akimbo & The King and I
Reviews by Rob Lester

Ghostlight Records

"A little sly, a little strange, a little bit askew" is a little bit of the lyric of "Anagram" from Kimberly Akimbo; it also describes (arguably in intriguing understatement) the tone of the piece rather well. A bold and quite quirky musical about a high school student with a rare genetic condition that makes her age four-and-a-half times the normal rate, its score and characters are full of surprises. By turns frenetic or wistful, touching a nerve or becoming unexpectedly touching in the most emotionally unguarded moments, it's a sweet-and-sour mix of dysfunction and desires. It's all handled well by a cast that seems to jump into the roles with no lack of alacrity. A sense of carpe diem–or striving for it–kind of hovers over the proceedings, culminating in the final exultation titled "Great Adventure" in which we're reminded that in life "nobody goes around twice."

The piece, which has moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway, reunites the writing partners of Shrek the Musical, Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics and book), based on the latter's earlier non-musical play. It has a frequently caffeinated contemporary-style score, sometimes featuring a strong beat and/or off-beat humor. In the title role, the canny and endearing Victoria Clark does not overplay the sympathy card in her songs. She projects a bright personality and a lot of zing. In a letter to the "Make a Wish" Foundation that serves seriously ill kids, she cutely lets some natural over-eagerness take over so that the request is not limited to one item. There are hints of her looming limited future, but this is no maudlin pity party. With a big dose of irreverence meshed with medical data, Kimberly joins classmates to sing about her affliction in "Our Disease" to fulfill a science class assignment. The litany of maladies with a melody delivered with gusto feels like a pep rally celebration instead of a dreary diagnosis. Our leading lady gets to a more plaintive reality check with the exquisitely expressed "Before I Go." Save your tears for that.

Self-absorbed adult family members don't make the best role models here, but they make for some entertaining diversion and unhinged episodes, plus a splash of dark humor. Bonnie Milligan is a hoot as the short-tempered, integrity-challenged aunt, recruiting Kimberly and her schoolmates as her partners in a crime spree, teaching them "How to Wash a Check." As Kimberly's alcoholic father and pregnant mother, Stephen Boyer and Alli Mauzey amuse in attempts to brush up on parenting skills addressing their unborn baby in her "Hello Darling" (two versions) and his "Hello Baby." He also shines in the rollicking "Happy for Her" that winningly starts off perky and morphs into frantic fretting and accusations.

In welcome contrast to the combustion and solipsistic folks, Justin Cooley, as Kimberly's sensitive and supportive ally, brings a refreshingly guileless quality to his role. His solo about wanting to be a "Good Kid" is a model of unabashed sincerity. Such glimmers of kindness and caring, along with Victoria Clark's multi-faceted performance, bring forth fragility and friendly spirits amid the frenzy that might otherwise dominate Kimberly Akimbo, an ambitiously atypical musical.

JAY Records
CD (2-DISC SET), Digital

When comparing descriptions of various cast recordings of the same show, the word "complete" is music to my ears. So, although the majority of the score of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic The King and I has been represented by more than a dozen releases–plus the ones in foreign languages–JAY Records' studio cast version is a cut above the rest for giving us material that others cut from consideration. The sumptuous package consists of 34 tracks (two discs in the physical format) and is full of grand voices, full versions of numbers truncated by other labels, reprises, some dialog, and instrumental selections that have their own drama, never like background or "incidental" music. The set was recorded back in 1994 and now has been retooled with the label's new DigiMIX program for enhanced sound quality, balance and presence, as career producer John Yap has done to other items in the catalog. Let's hear it (and let's hear it for the marvels of technology!).

We collectors have had the pleasure of taking in the songs with many striking voices and differing characterizations. Here, the respectful singing of the grandest and most soaring of the melodies makes them sound voluptuous, yet often more formal than vulnerable when handled in strict tempi by opera veterans. Fortunately, Rodgers' sturdy musical architecture and Hammerstein's passionate lyrics can handle the weight of such an approach, so we can be awash in this uncompromising full-bloom emphasis on sheer beauty and build. Employing the rich original 1951 orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett for the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Owen Edwards, keeps the original intentions and palpable impact in place, especially with the achingly poignant instrumental appearances of the songs about love.

Valerie Masterson, with her long career in opera and Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, is elegant in the female lead role of schoolteacher Anna, sounding lovely and lilting. Although the rolled r's can seem pompous, not all her stuff sounds stuffy. She is at her warmest in the number set in the schoolroom, "Getting to Know You," and that special affection for the children is highlighted when she sings about them tenderly in a shift from the otherwise angry and frustrated emotions unleashed effectively in the catharsis of "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" Her acting in spoken sections, especially near the end, reading aloud the letter from the king, the words catching in her throat, is quite moving.

As the young lovers meeting in secret, Jason Howard (heroic, but not too stoic) and Tinuke Olafimihan sing in big, resplendent voices that suggest feelings heartfelt more than heartbroken. As Lady Thiang, Sally Burgess brings the requisite dignity and empathy to "Something Wonderful." Christopher Lee as the king finds his own special balance in his songs between singing notes of the melodies and proclaiming words crisply, mixing in a more spoken style with focus, and appropriate consternation or bemusement. Likewise, his satisfying portrayal shows the monarch as sufficiently imposing yet with hints of uncertainty. His solo of "A Puzzlement" shows his swirling conflicts and confusion. Also heard to fine effect instrumentally later in this generous presentation, it is more prominently the recurring reinforcement and theme. And the reprise by the sons of the king and Anna (in the piping voices of Bea Julakasiun and Henry Williams, respectively) it is a delight. Speaking of material written for the youngest characters, note two brief but charming chants: the alma mater of the Royal Bangkok Academy and the interpolated 1823 "Home Sweet Home."

Marvelously absent nips, tucks or trims, the ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (at 16-plus minutes in length) is a resplendent pièce de résistance. It's fully engaging in its combination of story, message, choral singing, focused narration (by Tinuke Olafimihan), and kinetic orchestral colors. The only time I'd wish for the glorious orchestra to be less front and center is in "Shall We Dance?" For me, their very smooth, lilting playing in the spotlight contributes to not always getting the maximum potential of expected tension and little pauses in the chemistry between Anna and the king as they speak and sing (and dance). But we do sense the contagious joy.

And what joy we also are given by feasting on the overture, entr'acte, exit music, and other radiant revisits to the sublime melodies as well as the atmospheric and dance music pieces that don't depend on something heard elsewhere with lyrics. This package has many assets, but for the most immersive, full experience, the classy completeness of JAY Records' retooled project could be crowned the "king" of all King and I recordings.

p>PS: Since an earlier issue of the physical CD is still sold by some websites, to be sure you are ordering the DigiMIX version, look for that word in the description and is seen on cover which, unlike a 2006 release, has the design of a frame around it.