'King and I' still whistling a happy tune


The Liberty Showcase Theater is presenting a pleasantly entertaining version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, "The King and I," in the Randallstown High School Auditorium through Sunday.

This show, still popular with community and dinner theaters across the country, opened at the St. James Theatre in New York on March 29, 1951 and ran for 1,246 performances.

The Broadway show was originally directed by John van Drueten and starred Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brenner. Jerome Robbins' splendid narrative ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" -- based on "Uncle Tom's Cabin" -- was of major significance to the plot.

Taken from Margaret Landon's novel, "Anna and the King of Siam," the play is set in Bangkok in the early 1860s and tells the true story of English school mistress Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his many children by his many wives.

Anna has numerous conflicts with the autocratic and somewhat barbaric king over the rights of women (who are treated as slaves) and the rights of all individuals to be treated with dignity -- and respect.

But the king is thirsty for Western knowledge and more civilized ways and allows this strange woman to exert a strong democratic influence on his country. Eventually the two develop a fond, if uneasy, friendship.

In the Liberty Showcase Theater version, director Ray Thompson has managed to coordinate his 51-member cast well, which includes more than 20 beautifully behaved children.

Richard Keiser's original choreography for the narrative dance sequence (the high point of the show) is admirable in its use of modern dance technology.

Musical director Matt Elky conducts a full orchestra. The wonderful songs still stand the test of time: "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," "We Kiss in Shadow," "Something Wonderful," "I Have Dreamed."

Thompson has staged this large ensemble in a most picturesque manner. But the pace seems almost too leisurely at times and could bear a more upbeat tempo.

Thompson should inject more halting intonations into the vocal delivery of the characters to show the sharp ethnic differences between England and Siam. In this way the audience can immediately grasp the mood of a disparate culture.

Overall, the singing and dancing choruses are very satisfactory (especially in the "Uncle Thomas" number). The "Shall We Dance?" number between Anna and the King that usually stops the show is done nicely here but it is no show stopper.

What distinguishes this production is the outstanding performance of Karin Dircks as Anna. Not only does Dircks possess a fine soprano voice, she is also a fine actress, imbuing her role with the proper qualities of compassion, understanding and fiery independence.

Robert W. Cox disappoints as the King. Although passable with a fair singing voice, Cox does not have the commanding presence of this arrogant ruler torn between the old and the new.

And he lacks the powerful vocal projection needed for this very charismatic character. The actor's physical stance is hesitant and unsure, and there is little pathos in the king's usually touching death scene.

Dwayne Miller's full, rich voice hits one of the show's high points when he sings "We Kiss in a Shadow." The song was originally meant for a duet with the character Tuptim. But apparently Alyssa Levin (Tuptim) cannot sing, so this poignantly romantic bit has unfortunately been cut.

Levin's flat, American twang and lack of basic acting ability greatly distracted from the appeal of the Liberty Showcase production.

However, good performances are given by Sam Ellin as the heir to the throne, Brad Surosky as Anna's sensitive son and Debbie Brenner as Lady Thiang. Mark Epstein could use more subtlety in his role as the hostile Kralahome.

The colorful costumes fashioned by Sally Kahn are charmingly unique and some are quite lovely. Susan Sunderland has designed a garishly elegant set befitting the monarch of this tiny, exotic kingdom.

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