By Manning Harris
Theater of the Stars’ production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I, running through September 11 at the Fox, is sublime, and breathtakingly beautiful.
This show is one of the crown jewels of the R&H oeuvre, a body of work which is legendary: “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “The Sound of Music” come to mind. These shows continue to work because their creators knew that human nature, with our triumphs and our foibles, really doesn’t change that much. The soaring, unforgettable music doesn’t hurt either.
“The King and I” is based on the 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” by Margaret Landon; the book was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who actually became governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860’s.
The show opened on Broadway in 1951; the film version came in 1956. Both made Yul Brynner an international star. The British stage actress Gertrude Lawrence was the original Anna; Deborah Kerr did the film honors.
The current show at the Fox was cast mainly in New York; but quite a few children were cast in Atlanta (Theater of the Stars does that kind of thing very well.) The leading players include Anna, Victoria Mallory; the King, Ronobir Lahiri; the ingenues are Tuptim, Ali Ewoldt and Lun Tha, Josh Dela Cruz. Ms. Ewoldt and Mr. Cruz soar to romantic, operatic heights in “We Kiss in a Shadow” and especially “I Have Dreamed” in Act II, during which I was quite unashamedly verklempt. In this song these young doomed lovers rival almost anything in Puccini. I’d see the show again just to hear them.
Also outstanding is Jee Hyun Lim as Lady Thiang (“Something Wonderful”) and Raul Aranas as The Kralahome, the king’s assistant.
Even the “simple” songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune” work on several levels: The meaning here is nothing less than overcoming fear—perhaps our greatest challenge on the planet. Do you know “My Lord and Master,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “March of the Siamese Children,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” If so, lovely. If not, then “The King and I” is calling you.
The pace of the show is elegant, leisurely, majestic; this may sound off putting, but if you surrender to the play, the setting, and the ambiance, the whole experience becomes quite hypnotic. Two hours and 45 minutes (one intermission) pass before you know it.
A note to Fox regulars: The orchestra and the sound are perfect; you don’t miss a word. The direction is by Baayork Lee, a petite woman whom I saw in the original cast of “A Chorus Line”; she’s become quite a force in the theatre world.
The costumes, “provided by Theater of the Stars,” are opulent and gorgeous; the sets are lush.
This version of “The King and I” will be the best you’ll see in your lifetime, unless perhaps you saw Yul Brynner and company. But I think even he would applaud.
For tickets and information visit www.theaterofthestars.com.