If you're a fan of feel-good, upbeat musical theater, you have to like what Barbara S. Stein and the Actors Playhouse have been doing for lo these many years. Stein and her artistic director, David Arisco, regularly serve up well-produced, tightly staged shows that could more than hold their own in any theater town in the country, including New York. The playhouse's resident children's theater, under the skilled direction of Earl Maulding, is a community treasure in its own right. The company keeps adding subscribers, and its home, the wonderful Miracle Theatre facility, is a marvel of careful restoration. All of this adds up to a South Florida success story, but that local-hero identity may be changing, and quickly.
For starters, check out The King & I, the playhouse's revival of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. The production demands of this huge show are formidable: a large triple-threat cast of singer/dancer/actors, multiple sets, vast racks of costumes, many scene changes, and complex dance sequences. Even Broadway thinks at least twice about reviving a show this big, so when Stein and Arisco made the decision to produce the project, they must have held their collective breath. But now they can breathe easy. This King is a decided success, offering excellent performances and an impressive, colorful production staged by Arisco and ably backed by his veteran creative team.
The story line, based on a true history and a novel created from it, takes place in 19th-century Siam, now Thailand, where the traditional all-powerful king has ordered that his many children by many wives shall be educated in the Western tradition. A widowed British governess, Anna Leonowens, arrives by ship with her young son Louis in tow. She is immediately at odds with the imperious king but soon gains the affection of his many children. Though Anna and the king butt heads often, they form an alliance when the British government, in the person of its ambassador, arrives with the possible threat of colonizing Siam if the king cannot impress the British as a civilized, capable ruler.
The King & I, which also includes several subplots, may lack much high drama, but it certainly provides plenty of visual spectacle and a musical score that features several enduring song classics: "Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," and "Shall We Dance?" The clash between governess Anna and the authoritarian father, the governess/children relationship, and a number of musical elements all foreshadow Rodgers and Hammerstein's finest work, The Sound of Music, which, by the way, the playhouse plans to stage next season.
Arisco has met the challenge with skill and style, opting to stage this grand, traditional musical in a traditional manner. He seems in perfect sync with his designers. Stuart Reiter's lighting paints a series of luminous pictures framed by M.P. Amico's massive yet mobile sets, a nice balance between musical hokum and Asian tradition. But the clear design star of this show is the fabulous, meticulously researched costumes of Mary Lynn Izzo, whose use of fabric, drape, color, and texture is remarkable, especially considering the budget and staff limitations she must have faced. To this flavorful mix, add some knockout choreography from Barbara Flaten. Her version of the show's dance set piece, a Siamese rendition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet," is a showstopper.
Mary Grace Gordon as Anna and Lego Louis as the king are impressive as they ought to be: Both have played their roles in several other productions of the show and perform with assurance. But neither manages to put much of an original stamp on their roles. Louis maintains the bald-headed look and hands-on-hips stance that Yul Brynner introduced in the original, while Gordon stays within the conventions set by several Annas past.
Arisco's company is blessed with a fine supporting cast, especially Susan Brownfield as a passionate, mellifluous Tuptim, the king's new captive who is in love with another man. Brownfield is well-matched with Fausto Pineda as her swain, Lun Tha. The pair has two terrific duets, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed," songs full of passion and romance. Wen Zhang's Lady Thiang is another strong performance, as is the one of Bob Rogerson, who takes the thankless role of the king's major-domo and turns it into a little gem.
What's not to like? I hate to be a spoilsport, but I am not a big fan of this particular musical. Yes, it's a classic with many famous songs, but some of these don't mesh very well with the story line, rising out of the narrative arbitrarily. And more than a few meandering songs and scenes seem to exist chiefly to cover set changes. I wish Arisco had been less reverential and cut out some of the fluff in this overlong project. The show also suffers from dated cultural assumptions and a one-joke concept -- look at the funny foreigners -- that really bears signs of age. To its credit, the playhouse team has researched traditional Thai culture, which shows in the costumes, sets, and choreography, but these tend only to point out the book's presumptions of Western superiority. Look at the king's amusing attempts to dance a waltz. Will the British think the Siamese are civilized enough? Can Anna get the Thai women to wear underwear?
Another problem, and a bigger one, really, for the playhouse is the skimpy sound system. Musical director David Nagy's hard-working ensemble does a good job, but there are a mere seven musicians in the pit, and they have to work with a sound system that, from the looks of the teeny speakers clinging to the proscenium walls, no self-respecting undergrad would keep in a dorm room. Theaters focusing on musicals should spend at least as much attention on the sound and music in their shows as the headdresses on the extras.
Still, this King is a very attractive production, part of a season that marks a sea change in the playhouse's identity. Now that it has successfully met the challenges of large-scale musical production with a mix of local and out-of-area talent, it will be expected to do so in the future. The playhouse itself has clearly been thinking about growth, as evidenced by the recent announcement of the upcoming 2002-03 season. The first show, a coproduction with the Broadway producers responsible for The Producers, will be a revival of a well-known musical, but the title remains a secret as of press time. Whatever it is will reportedly involve revisions and adaptations of the original production while the show is in residence at the playhouse, after which it is scheduled to move on to New York in spring 2003.
The new season also includes a smartly written comic thriller, Charles Marowitz's Sherlock's Last Case; the aforementioned Sound of Music as the centerpiece musical; and two smaller musicals: the little-known but fascinating Floyd Collins, a dark tale about a Kentucky man trapped in a cave; and the lightweight The Big Bang. This lineup is a significant step for the company, with most of these shows decidedly stronger material than in the past. Lamentably, the playhouse continues to cling to its perennial, done-to-death, aptly titled summer show, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.
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