By Mike Giuliano
9:48 AM EDT, June 21, 2012
The opening of Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre is a sign of the season for local theatergoers.
It's kicking off its 40th season on the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County with a production of "The King and I" that has voices as bright as the costumes.
This beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical combines exotic Siamese decor, Broadway glitz, memorable tunes and an endearing story about the quasi-romantic friendship between the autocratic 19th-century King of Siam and the strong-willed English woman hired to instruct the King's children, Anna Leonowens, who is not reluctant to also teach the King a few things about civil behavior.
It's a show that needs to be done on a grand scale. The King's numerous wives and children all need to wear fancy clothes and Anna needs full Victorian skirts. Palatial columns are an essential backdrop.
Besides looking regal, the show also needs to sound great. It's not enough for the King to strike an impressive gong. You need an orchestra down in the pit.
This production may not be over-the-top in opulence, but it does suggest the royal setting for what's essentially a small-scale plot about the amusingly tense relationship between a Thai despot and the stubborn Englishwoman who proves to be his match.
Todd Pearthree, a veteran director and choreographer in the Baltimore area, pulls all of these elements together and oversees a generally swell show. His accomplishments in this production range from getting first-rate voices in several roles to expertly choreographing the lengthy "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet sequence.
As Anna, Nancy Parrish Asendorf has a lovely voice that's showcased in numbers including "Getting to Know You" and "Hello, Young Lovers." Her strong acting underscores Anna's feelings about education, women's rights and etiquette.
Although she also looks lovely in her hoop skirts, Asendorf hasn't quite mastered the art of getting around in these imposingly large dresses. Let's just say that as she charges around the classroom and then the dance floor, audience members receive an unintended lesson in Victorian underwear styles.
It's admittedly unfair to actor James Handakas to observe that he does not look like the late Yul Brynner, for whom the role of the King became a lifelong Asian meal ticket. Unlike the bald-domed, muscular Brynner, Handakas has a full head of gray hair and, truth be told, slouches a bit when he should be standing tall. He's convincing as the King, in his own way, but could do more to bring out the monarch's authoritarian nature.
What ultimately counts is that this particular teacher and king make for an appealing odd couple. By the time they hit the dance floor and waltz together in "Shall We Dance?," they do seem like dance partners made for each other.
Bolstering the two leads are a number of supporting players who truly make the court come alive. As the King's eldest wife, Lady Thiang, Eileen Keenan Aubele does justice to songs including "There Is a Happy Land" and "Something Wonderful." As the King's youngest wife, Tuptim, Molly Doyle is very good singing "My Lord and Master"; and she soars when she and Kevin James Logan as Tuptim's secret lover, Lun Tha, beautifully blend their voices for "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."
Musical director Glenette Rohner Shumacker and her musicians get off to a poor start with an anemic rendition of what should be a stirring overture, but they improve as the night goes on. It's as if they realize that the King of Siam demands no less.
"The King and I" runs through July 1 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex campus, 7201 Rossville Blvd. Performances are Friday and Saturday, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, at 3 p.m.; there also is a Thursday performance June 28, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20; $18 for seniors, 60 and over; and $12 for children, 12 and under. Call 443-840-ARTS or go to http://www.ccbcmd.edu/arts.