Review: An elegant and timely ‘King and I’ rules at the Saroyan Theatre
Lively and lovely. These are the best words for the national tour of “The King and I,” which opened Tuesday at the Saroyan Theatre with a beautifully sung, elegantly staged take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. It plays one more performance Wednesday. Here’s a rundown:
The production: The show is a community-theater staple, of course, and has been revived numerous times. This latest incarnation, a Lincoln Center production originally directed by Bartlett Sher, puts a crisp sheen on the material that effectively helps shoo some of the original’s cobwebs away while retaining its old-fashioned charm. Restaging director Shelley Butler nicely scales down the elaborate Broadway production into a touring version that still feels big in scope and impact.
The issues: This is still a show firmly rooted in 19th century attitudes in terms of gender roles. Anna (Angela Baumgardner), the English single mother recruited by the King of Siam to be governess to his children and wives, still has to keep her head below his, after all. There’s always been a brisk, cheeky streak of independence exhibited by Anna, even dating back to the original — it’s what gives the relationship between her and the king that certain frisson that keeps things humming — but in this production she simply doesn’t back down. As for slavery, the other big issue broached by the progressive-minded Rodgers and Hammerstein, I think it’s a little harder for the show to connect with a 2019 audience. That’s mostly because “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s hugely influential and best-selling book — doesn’t have as much cultural currency now as it did back in the early 1950s. That makes it harder for the pivotal ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” to reverberate with an audience.
The singing: It’s a strong point of this production. Baumgardner has a sweet, sterling voice in such classic tunes as “Hello, Young Lovers.” Paulina Yeung, as Tuptim, the young princess in forbidden love with Lun Tha (a strong Dongwoo Kang), sings a gorgeous “My Lord and Master.”
And in my favorite vocal performance, Deanna Choi offers an exhilarating “Something Wonderful.” It’s one of those moments that the rest of the theater seems to melt away and you’re left with something approaching transcendence.
The acting: Quite good, too, if not as strong overall as the singing. Baumgardner gives Anna a feisty turn. Pedro Ka’awaloa, as the King, is an interesting casting choice. Though his acting is strong, he seems too young for the role, particularly for the health problems his character faces. And then there are the children, who are sweet, cute and well directed, always a treat in a show like this.
The orchestra: Something seemed off in the first act. (One musician friend told me he thought it sounded “embarrassingly shabby.)” I wondered whether the whole thing was being done by just a synthesizer. Things got better in the second act, though.
The production design: The costumes and sets are nice, though I was irritated when the “roaming” columns that make up the interior of the palace hovered conspicuously above the stage with a few inches of space in between, as if everything were in a state of perpetual levitation. (Funny how sometimes you notice something like that and then can’t not look.) A highlight for me was Donald Holder’s lighting design, which gave each soloist an extra pop of brightness at the end of a tune, almost as if they were receiving a gold star.
Finally: “The King and I” was written almost 70 years ago, but at least one line felt eerily timely. “One day I wish to build a fence around Siam,” says the exasperated King, worried about foreign meddling. The opening-night audience buzzed. For what it’s worth, this show comes firmly down on the side of “Getting to Know You.” In today’s divided nation, that’s something to consider.