Now on stage at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, the company’s production of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s classic 1951 musical The King and I is a remarkably effective revival of this exotic, tune-filled musical. Even in the limited space of a dinner theater, the production’s strong cast, decent choreography, and colorful, surprisingly elaborate costuming combine into a very strong argument indeed for putting this show on your entertainment calendar.
Avid theatergoers are probably already familiar with the outline of this show’s plot, which is based on the actual adventures of a widowed 19th century English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens. She’s been contracted by the King of Siam (now Thailand) to tutor most of his many wives and children in the more sophisticated, “scientific” language and culture of the West. In the process, the King and this strange Englishwoman first draw closer and then further apart as they try to deal with and accommodate their very different cultures.
The schoolteacher’s first-hand account of her experiences has come to be regarded over the years as rather lopsided, typically favoring the “civilized” western approach toward laws and society over the more “barbarian” Siamese traditions stoutly defended by the King.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein treatment of the material—based on the Margaret Landon novel “Anna and the King of Siam”(1944), which was, in turn, based on Leonowens’ own memoir—takes a similar tack to the duo’s South Pacific, presenting a somewhat more evenhanded treatment of the East-West cultural divide.
As you enjoy this Rodgers and Hammerstein view of history, you might like to keep in mind this little appreciated fact. The actual King who Anna encountered in her trip to Siam in 1862, King Mongkut, was quite astute in the way he went about modernizing his kingdom while retaining most of his people’s cultural traditions, an approach carried out with remarkable fidelity by many of his predecessors. As a result of this flexible approach, Thailand alone, among southeast Asian countries, was the only one that never actually succumbed to foreign rule.
The Broadway musical simplifies many of these cultural complexities, but retains a remarkably balanced view, including its improbable but moving central love story between the King and Anna. Add to this some of R&H’s best known tunes—including “Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance,” and the charming nonvocal “March of the Siamese Children”—and you have a musical that never seems to wear out its welcome in revival after revival.
As is true in any musical, a production, in the end, is only as strong as its cast, and Toby’s boasts an excellent crew of actor-singer-dancers in its current production.
As Anna, Heather Marie Beck is chirpy, optimistic, but disciplined as the schoolteacher who holds her own in the King’s male-dominant court. Her sassiness is properly British, of course, but she always has an innate sense as to just the right time to back off in a confrontation with the strong-willed monarch. Vocally, she’s bright and sunny, with an impeccable sense of phrasing, ensuring that the show’s momentum never slows.
As her opposite, the gruff, imperious, yet surprisingly flexible King of Siam, David Bosley-Reynolds is a more burly and somewhat more surly re-imagining of the leaner Yul Brynner who made this role famous both onstage and on film. But he digs into the role with relish and authenticity, boasting a strong, authoritative voice that’s well suited to the role.
Yet he also proves surprisingly light on his feet in the bouncy polka that underpins his popular duet with Anna, “Shall We Dance.” It’s a fine performance all around, and quite romantic, too. The sparks that fly between Bosley-Reynolds and Beck lead inexorably yet naturally to the show’s genuinely moving finale.
There’s a “lower class” parallel love story, this one between the King’s recently imported Burmese concubine, Tuptim (Julia Lancione) and Lun Tha (Jeffrey Shankle), the palace staffer who unfortunately falls head over heels in love with her which leads to serious issues. The couple gets to sing perhaps the show’s most poignant duet, “I Have Dreamed,” and both Lancione and Shankle turn in an excellent, almost operatic performance in this production. It’s a shame their characters don’t get more to do. But what we get here is still first rate.
A hat tip as well to Crystal Freeman as Lady Thiang, the King’s number one wife. Elegant, understanding, and kind, Freeman’s Lady Thiang provides just the right international human touch to the show’s sometimes difficult situations. And she knows how to sing, too, as evidenced in her touching rendition of “Something Wonderful.”
The supporting cast of this production is also quite polished, both vocally and in the constant choreography, whose elaborate pageants are a notable feature in this musical. The young children who portray the King’s large brood are utterly disarming as they scamper about the stage. But they’re at their best in the “March of the Siamese Children” as they formally welcome their new tutor with a blend of well-drilled elegance interspersed with the usual (and here intentional) gaffes that make all such pageants a permanent part of family memories.
Likewise, the adult cast does a marvelous job with the show’s surpassingly odd but famous Siamese re-telling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” aka “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” And that’s a good thing, too, as this re-telling of an American classic serves as the underlying parable of good and evil, of servitude and freedom, that lies at the core of this show’s central conflict.
Toby’s is, as always, not just about the show, of course. The audience comes to enjoy a good spread as well. During Sunday’s matinee performance, the brunch buffet featured tasty, traditional breakfast fare plus assorted meats and, cleverly, a few Thai-themed dishes that helped add to the ambience of the excellent production that followed.
The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers . Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Shawn Kettering
Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings
Choreography by Tina DeSimone
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Terry Ponick