By Richard Schultz, Jan. 29, 2015
First, the production must propel the audience back to the Victorian world of 1862 when hoop skirts were in fashion, Lincoln was in the White House and the literary world was buzzing over the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Secondly, the audience needs to be whisked away to the Orient, specifically Bangkok in Siam.
And thirdly, the characters are iconic with a legendary score of treasured tunes like “Hello Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” that endure as part of the American songbook, often covered by vocalists throughout the decades since its initial opening in 1951.
On all three counts, Arizona Broadway Theatre scores a hit and succeeds by lovingly paying homage to this classic Tony Award-winning musical.
The King and I is based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which is, in turn, derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. At the center of this unique love story set in 19th-century Bangkok is Anna, a British widow hired to tutor the King’s many children. Although their very different backgrounds initially result in conflict, the sparks set off by their culture clash ignite a romance and lead to greater understanding and respect between the two.
The pairing of Jill Tieskoetter as Anna and Alan Ariano as the King is masterful stroke of casting. Both had big shoes to fill. Yul Brynner popularized the role of the King both on Broadway and in the film. On stage, veteran leading lady Gertrude Lawrence captivated audiences with her final stage performance, while Deborah Kerr starred in the film version. Yet, in this production, Tieskoetter and Ariano deliver stellar performances that define their characters as their own distinctive creation, with bravado and chemistry that enchants the audience.
Tieskoetter soars in Act Two where the depth of her performance is equally matched by her engaging vocal talents and beauty. Quite simply, she is divine in a soft pink ball gown. She glows and captivates all.
Ariano very quickly establishes the pomposity that is essential to later successfully transform the character, showing that the King’s heart is as mighty as his leadership. While the King strives to modernize his country, Ariano brings a humor to the King that is as charismatic as his dazzling smile and sparking eyes. Ariano also reveals the King’s moments of doubt with great authenticity and leaves the audience spellbound by his presence.
Interestingly, it is the cadre of the King’s many wives that embody that bygone world. Kyoko Ogawa as Lady Thiang, the King’s most powerful wife, is stunning. Her voice is mesmerizing. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful” is a showstopper. We can only hope to see her in future ABT productions.
The choreography reaches its zenith in the Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet. Choreographer Heather Adams demonstrates an intuitive understanding on how to mesh two cultures when East meets West. She translates the ballet into an enthralling showcase of dance at its very best. Natsuko Hirano as Eliza, the runaway slave, is another stroke of genius casting. She demands our attention and conveys an array of emotion through movement.
Special notice is warranted for Eymard Cabling’s performance as Lun Tha, who is the love interest of Tuptim, played by Chelsea Soto. Through on stage for only brief scenes, Cabling truthfully represents the outer world and convincingly conveys his longing for Tuptim. Together, their two songs, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” sparked the flame of young love and brought an emotional depth to the production.
Interestingly, the most dramatic moment in the production belongs to Bobby Underwood, who plays the Kralahome who serves as the King’s prime minister. His condemning of Anna, her presence and her impact on the King boldly resonates through the theatre, leaving the audience with a sense of dread as the King’s health declines.
The scenic design by Jim Hunter is effortless and cleverly utilizes screens to whisk the action from inside the palace and its inner chambers to the lavish gardens. Without a doubt, Kelsey Ettman’s costume design work is absolutely breathtaking. The intermingling of satins and silks represent the lush standard of living enjoyed by the King and his court. The palette of textures and colors deepens the audience’s visual understanding of this faraway time and foreign land. The costumes are a visual delightful treat served with opulence.
There are many fine moments in this production, directed by Andy Meyers, yet the most iconic scene from this musical still elicits applause by the audience. In “Shall We Dance?” Anna teaches the King after a grand soiree with British visitors. This is truly one of the legendary moments of American theatre, skillfully staged by Meyers. The enduring appeal of this moment symbolizes both East and West coming together and dramatically conveys the pinnacle of Anna’s and the King’s relationship. It is heartfelt. It is stirring. It is most memorable!
Quite simply, this production of The King and I is refreshing and most worthy of praise, as the King often remarks, “Etc., etc. etc.”