Stunning 'King and I' at Toby's Columbia is worth a trip

Through March 25, Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia is offering a stunning production of "The King and I," which tells the story of an English widow and the king of Siam finding mutual respect and affection despite their different cultures.

The message of tolerance is masterfully told through the poetry of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II set to the enduring melodies of Richard Rodgers. The 60-year-old musical remains relevant today, and its message must have been groundbreaking when it premiered on Broadway in 1951.

Toby's production brings new life to this timeless story, as it captures a distinctive clash of cultures and the specter of forbidden romance, which give way to growing understanding.

Making Toby's "The King and I" well worth the 40-minute drive for Anne Arundel residents is the fact that several key players on stage and off are neighbors. David Bosley-Reynolds of Annapolis plays the king, the hereditary prince is portrayed by John Morrison of Annapolis, and Alan Hoffman of Glen Burnie plays a royal court member: the Kralahome. The king's guard, who is also understudy for three roles, is Matthew Greenfield of Harwood. Show choreographer Tina DeSimone lives in Annapolis.

The musical is based on a 1944 novel, which was based in turn on the memoirs of an English widow who traveled with her young son in the 1860s to become governess to the children of Siam's king.

"The King and I" reflects the sexual tension between teacher Anna and the king, whose absolute power conflicts with Anna's demands for respect. Anna does not forgive the king for reneging on a promise to grant her a private residence, and she gains his trust by helping his government win the respect of a British emissary.

Director Shawn Kettering has gathered a superb cast of actor/singers to deliver this near-perfect production under the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings. Annapolis resident DeSimone creates imaginative choreography, and Florence Arnold designs fabulous costumes. Toby Orenstein serves as artistic director.

As Anna, Heather Marie Beck gives perhaps her finest performance to date, investing this Victorian teacher with searing ambition to bring knowledge to the king's children and education to his many wives.

Beck does full justice to such great songs as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers" and "Getting to Know You," investing each with heartfelt emotion. She demonstrates warm rapport with the youngsters and nuanced chemistry with the king.

Bosley-Reynolds instantly becomes the king, projecting a sense of absolute power combined with a disarming quest for wider knowledge and human desire for royal perfection. His rich delivery of "A Puzzlement" completely defines this king — and later, his electric "Shall We Dance" number with Beck's Anna becomes theater at its best.

Adding sparkle to Toby's production are strong actor/singers Jeffrey Shankle and Julia Lancione, who play star-crossed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, together providing musical peaks in two of the score's best songs.

Lancione introduces her Tuptim character in the song "My Lord and Master" and later joins Shankle's Lun Tha in a moving "We Kiss in a Shadow." The two follow up in Act 2 by attaining a romantic peak in "I Have Dreamed." Having played several leading roles in past Toby's productions, Shankle proves his versatility here while conveying unmistakable chemistry with Lancione, who reveals unsuspected expertise in the classical, near-operatic vocal realm.

The strength of this production extends to the supporting cast, which includes a compelling performance by Hoffman as the major court official the Kralahome. Crystal Freeman plays Lady Thiang, the king's favorite wife and mother of the future king; her "Something Wonderful" marks another highlight of many.

Many talented children contribute to the overall production by adding their own special charm. Worthy of special mention are Holden Brettell and T.J. Langston, who alternate in the role of Anna's son , and Palmer Foran and Morrison as Prince Chulalongkorn. At the Sunday performance I attended, Langston delivered a most appealing portrayal of Louis, and Morrison was entirely credible as Chulalongkorn.

Together, the children expertly delivered the enchanting "March of the Siamese Children," choreographed by DeSimone. Several children also participated in the demanding ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," also freshly choreographed by DeSimone.

Musical director Rawlings alternates with Douglas Lawler as conductor of a skilled group of musicians who reveal the enduring beauty of this fabled score.

Evening and matinee performances of "The King and I" continue through March 23, with tickets (including a buffet) for about $50. For reservations, call the box office at 410-730-8311.

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