Reviewed by George Basler
The King and I is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most loved and familiar musicals, coming in just after The Sound of Music on the popularity scale.
And that’s both a blessing and a curse for the production running through Sunday at the Endicott Performing Arts Center’s Robert Eckert Theatre.
On the blessing side, the show is such a proven crowd-pleaser that the audience is hot-wired to love it for its wonderful, if old-fashioned, songs and compelling plot. The fact that the stage is filled with youngsters, who play the king’s numerous children, ups the cute factor.
On the downside, every production has to deal with the ghosts of past productions, notably the 1956 film featuring Deborah Kerr (Marni Nixon dubbed her singing voice) and Yul Brynner. Brynner especially, with his bald head and imperious manner, defined the role of the king.
So the good news is that the EPAC effort, under the direction of John Penird, is successful on its own terms as a solid community theater production.
At the heart of the musical is the relationship between the king, who is looking to Westernize his country, and Anna Leonowens, an English widow hired to teach his children and favorite wives. The show is based on a novel by Margaret Landon, derived from Leonowens’ own memoirs as governess to the children of King Monghut of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s.
Both leads in the EPAC production give strong performances. Laura Liburdi, as Anna, gives assured rendering of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic songs. While her acting is a bit mannered at times, she catches Anna’s pluck and resolve as she goes head to head with the king.
As the king, Francisco Paler-Large gives a first-rate performance. It would be a brave actor indeed who would risk changing Brynner’s interpretation of the role, and Paler-Large doesn’t try. But he plays the role with a nice, light touch that is refreshing.
The king is an interesting mixture of bullheadedness and uncertainty, and Paler-Large catches both aspects. And when he erupts with volcanic anger near the end of the musical, the performance becomes truly intense.
What is especially noteworthy is that Liburdi and Paler-Large have great chemistry. They make the growing affection and respect between Anna and the king believable and charming.
The musical’s subplot is less successful due to its dated book. The subplot involves the relationship between concubine Tuptim (Lorraine Bennett) and her secret lover (Corey Brady). Both Bennett and Brady sing their hearts out, but their relationship is underdeveloped. That’s not all their fault. The original material is thin and simplistic, to say the least.
As Lady Thiang, the king’s chief wife, Andrea Gregori brings a soaring voice to the role. But her performance of her main song, “Something Wonderful,” suffers from being too over-the-top. Gregori seemed more intent on overpowering the song with vocal pyrotechnics than catching its emotional emphasis. Less could have been more in this case.
Of course, no review of The King and I can fail to mention the children. Let’s just say they are suitably appealing.
Choreographers Anne Szymaniak, Alery Trotter Patton and Kate Pulling had one of the most difficult jobs: staging one of the show’s centerpieces, a Siamese version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin presented by the children for the king’s Western visitors.
The legendary Jerome Robbins directed the number in the original 1951 Broadway production. That’s mighty big shoes to fill. Still, the EPAC staging succeeded on its own terms. The number flowed well, and youngsters did a good job, which was no easy task.
The set design by Penird and Jeff Envid and the lighting design by Lorraine Tennant were competent and professional.
Without question, the show’s cultural attitudes have become pretty dated. The story of a Great White Father (or in this case a Great White Mother) transforming sympathetic, but childlike, Asians can be seen as quaint, at best, or insulting, at worst. (In fact, the 1956 film is still banned in Thailand.)
But critics need to lighten up. No one should expect a nuanced treatise on colonialism and race relations in a Broadway musical. They should expect great music and a compelling story, and The King and I delivers on both counts, even after more than 60 years.
Moreover, no matter how simplistically presented, the theme of reaching understanding across cultural barriers is certainly relevant in this day and age.
EPAC’s effort deserves a hearty measure of applause.
IF YOU GO: The final two performances are 8 p.m. today (Nov. 15) and 3 p.m.Sunday (Nov. 16) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 for adults or $18 for seniors (age 65 and older) and children (age 12 and under).
For tickets, call 785-8903, or go online to www.endicottarts.com. The performance I attended (Friday, Nov. 14) was not sold out, so tickets could be available at the box office on the day of the show.