Whistle A Happy Tune
By R. J. Donovan
As the audience files in to find its seats in The Wang Theatre, they're greeted by a massive, majestic show curtain, richly detailed in red and gold. The entire thing is surrounded by an elegant Oriental gilt edged proscenium frame.
Clearly, the national touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King & I” is no hit-or-miss bus-and-truck production.
To the contrary, this show from another time is a grand swirl of music and color; terrific dropped panels and set pieces (including a massive Buddha figure at the end of Act One); a lush and romantic score; and a rainbow of jewel-toned costumes.
At the center of it all are Sandy Duncan (left) as Anna Leonowens and Martin Vidnovic as The King. Both bring their own special qualities to their characters. Anna is as strong and opinionated as ever, but Duncan adds a handsome dollop of heart -- especially in her emotional reprise of “Hello Young Lovers.” Vidnovic’s King, who is also as stubborn as ever, is more vulnerable than others I’ve seen. His limitation is that he doesn’t particularly look the part.
Originally a novel (Margaret Landon’s “Anna and the King of Siam”) turned into a non-musical film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn, the story focuses on a refined English widow who arrives in Siam to teach the many children of the King. She is specifically there to add a Western influence to things. However Anna and the King soon suffer a culture clash, because of her influence and challenges. And although neither understands the other and each continually insists the other is completely wrong, there’s an underlying attraction between the two.
The novel attracted the attention of actress Gertrude Lawrence who bought the rights to the story and handed the project off to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They, in turn, created a star vehicle for Ms. Lawrence -- who played opposite a then largely unknown actor named Yul Brynner.
“The King & I” originally opened on Broadway in 1951. Brynner went on to incredible fame and fortune and spent most of the rest of his life identified with, and playing, The King. He also starred in the splashy film version of the musical in 1956.
Ironically, while ”The King & I” signaled the real beginning of Brynner’s career, it marked the end of Lawrence’s. She died in 1952 at the height of the show’s popularity.
Then, as now, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score is one classic musical theatre moment after another, beginning with “Whistle a Happy Tune” and running through “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting To Know You,” “We Kiss In A Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed” and “Shall We Dance?”(left).
In addition to “Hello Young Lovers,” Duncan does an especially nice job with the exasperating “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” Vidnovic has his moment with “A Puzzlement.” And as Lady Thiang, the King's primary wife, Catherine Mieun Choi delivers a joyful “Something Wonderful.”
Director Baayork Lee keeps the evening moving with grace while Susan Kikuchi recreates Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, including the charming second act ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
As mentioned above, the look of the show is first rate, thanks to Kenneth Foy’s scenic design and Roger Kirk’s costumes. Kirk’s work is particularly noticeable in the costumes of the Royal Wives and Royal Children, the first white and gold outfit worn by Tuptim and the glittering black and crystal uniform worn by Simon of Legree in the ballet.
"The King & I" is at at The Wang Theatre, 265 Tremont Street in Boston, through October 17. For information, call 800-447-7400.
The production moves to the Providence Center for the Performing Arts from October 19 - 24.
Production Photos: Joan Marcus
-- OnStage Boston
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