When you’ve seen a show many times, and it’s become lodged in the minds of American musical theater audiences as a classic, it’s easy to forget just how many elements have to come together for it to succeed, production after production. Venice Theatre’s current offering of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standby, The King and I, is a reminder of that truth—in a good way.
This is a big show, and one with a fairly demanding score, a need for several strong leads, fairly sumptuous costumes and sets—and oh, yes, it has hordes of children onstage. Challenging, but worthwhile if you can pull it off—and escape from the ghost of Yul Brynner, who’s remembered by many for this one role as the King of Siam, which he dominated for years.
Happily, director/choreographer Steve Flaa has performers who can render convincing characterizations of their own, independent of any earlier stage/screen memories. He’s also fortunate to have good production values here: a simple set of frameworks, columns and draperies by Jarrod Bray that nevertheless manages to suggest an air of Eastern opulence; some impressive costumes (especially for the female lead, governess Anna Leonowens) by Nicholas Hartman; and some pleasantly Eastern-feeling lighting, too, this by David Castaneda.
Brian Rudolph and Kathryn Parks in Venice Theatre’s The King and I.
The story is familiar to almost anyone who’s ever set foot in a theater by now, centering first on the relationship between Welsh-born widow Anna (Kathryn Parks) and the autocratic but eager-to-learn King (Brian Rudolph), and, secondly, on that between the young slave, Tuptim (Delores Elizabeth McKenzie), and her forbidden lover, Lun Tha (Scott Vitale). Of course there are other court characters to consider, including favorite wife Lady Thiang (in a strong performance by Sevasty Antoniades) and all those children.
With many scenes demanding a host of performers to converge at once, the staging occasionally feels a bit muddled or stiff (although not on the second act The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet, which is well executed). But when the central characters work together or solo, the moments usually shine, aided by music director Rick Bogner’s authoritative lead.
Parks is a younger than usual Anna (one quickly forgets that, except for the Act II meeting with an erstwhile suitor, where the math just doesn’t add up), but she both sings and moves very well and shows a fine spirit as an 1860s-era woman who must confront a powerful man. It’s nice to see her solo, Shall I Tell You What I Think of You? included here; it’s often deleted from the show for the sake of time.
She also plays convincingly with Rudolph as the King, especially late in Act I when they finally come together as colleagues in helping to Westernize his kingdom. That connection is threatened, however, by their differences over the case of Tuptim and Lun Tha. And that romance is more believable than I’ve usually seen it portrayed in community theater, thanks largely to McKenzie’s touching acting and vocal performance.
There were minor sound issues on opening night, but the cast dealt with that with aplomb, proving that they’re well grounded in their roles and able to sustain the show’s momentum. The King and I continues through March 13; for tickets call 488-1115 or visit venicestage.com.